Freedom of speech is vital. The ability for people to speak freely has variously been labelled the lifeblood of democracy, a bulwark against tyranny, the cornerstone of liberty, and the hallmark of a civilised society.

Australians have enjoyed freedom of speech to such an extent that we have mostly taken it for granted. However, in recent years, free speech has faced a surprising amount of opposition in Western nations like Australia.

Some of this opposition has been external — whether via social media censorship, corporate wokeness, or “hate speech” legislation. Much of it, however, has been internal, with Australians themselves increasingly calling for limits on speech in the belief it will protect individuals and society from perceived harm.

At Australian Christians, we are deeply concerned by these developments. We are convinced that the Australian way of life will not endure if robust protections for speech fall away.

Why is freedom of speech so important?

First, to speak is to think out loud. The more limits a society places on what its people are allowed to say, the less its people will be free to think, test their ideas, encounter viewpoints that challenge and improve their own thinking, and take part in the noble search for truth.

Second, freedom of speech is the precondition for the healthy functioning of democracy. All people — especially those in powerful leadership roles — are prone to corruption. Freedom of speech serves a check against corruption and abuse by government officials. Australia is a thriving and enviable nation today only to the extent that its people have been empowered to speak against injustice and demand fair laws and governance.

Third, freedom of speech allows people to “blow off steam” and enact change in healthy ways. In countries where speech is heavily restricted, violence and political revolution are commonplace. Australians have never experienced major political turmoil for the simple reason that, rather than being prevented from airing our grievances, we have generally been free to improve our society by speaking freely about the things that matter to us.

Fourth, the ability to speak freely is the safeguard for all other freedoms — whether freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of association or freedom of movement. If strict limits are placed on what people are allowed to say, how can they possibly speak up to defend the many other freedoms that undergird human dignity and self-government?

Fifth, freedom of speech drives innovation and progress. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who escaped repression in Somalia and is now a powerful advocate of Wester freedom, explains:

Societies since the Enlightenment have progressed because of their willingness to question sacred cows, to foster critical thinking and rational debate. Societies that blindly respect old hierarchies and established ways of thinking, that privilege traditional norms and cower from giving offence, have not produced the same intellectual dynamism as Western civilisation. Innovation and progress happened precisely in those places where perceived “offence” and “hurt feelings” were not regarded as sufficient to stifle critical thinking.

Freedom of speech, of course, comes with certain built-in limits. We are not free to use our words to defame or deceive, or to inspire mayhem or murder. For good reason, fraud, defamation and incitement of violence have always fallen outside of the limits of free speech in civilised societies like Australia’s.

But it is absolutely essential these limits are not expanded in an attempt to protect people from feeling offended or getting upset.

No one needs legal protection to say nice things. Who would ever oppose pleasant speech? Freedom of speech exists for one reason: to protect words and ideas that are disagreeable, that offend, that upset the status quo.

As George Orwell famously said, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” In particular, liberty requires us to be able to tell our political leaders what they do not want to hear, otherwise liberty will be no more.

We should be deeply concerned by efforts from our government to limit what we are allowed to say. Any nation that prescribes a single correct view and demonises dissent beckons tyranny. Laws that ban offensive speech will always give the most control over what we are allowed to say to the people who disagree with us the most.

At Australian Christians, we have an additional reason to be passionate about freedom of speech: it is the product of a Christian worldview.

Freedom of speech didn’t arise just anywhere in the world. Its fountainhead was Christian Europe. The emphasis on free will found in Christian theology made a crucial contribution to Western ideas about human dignity, rights and freedoms. Additionally, the Protestant Reformation, with its emphasis on a personal understanding of Scripture and a personal relationship with God, encouraged the idea that individuals can freely discuss religious matters and have open dialogue about the things that really matter.

So even as Australia and other Western countries begin limiting speech, Australian Christians speaks up in defiance of these efforts. We believe the best way to respond to offensive speech isn’t to use force — it’s to counter with persuasive speech of your own.

This is the only way to keep us all truly safe from history’s worst abuses.

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