How “Free” Should Free Speech Be?


The biggest football story of the fall has not been about what’s happened on a field, but about what goes on in the locker rooms. Since “bullying” has been such a hot media topic for the past five years, it was a matter of time before the issue was addressed on a high, professional, public level rather than the playground of the local middle school. That time has come.

The Miami Dolphins are currently undergoing NFL investigation relating to the events that led to the departure of offensive lineman Jonathan Martin. In short, the belief is that there was concern amongst team leadership that Martin was too “soft” (obviously not an admirable trait for someone who’s professional life is based largely on physicality). Veteran lineman Richie Incognito was summoned to toughen up Martin – by any means necessary. The following is a portion of a voicemail left for Martin by Incognito, presumably to challenge his manhood and get him to become more aggressive. Instead, Jonathan Martin left the team and the voicemail was turned over to authorities.

(WARNING: the text below contains language that may offend you. If you don’t want to see it, please bypass the quote.)

“Hey, wassup, you half n—– piece of s—. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. [I want to] s— in your f—ing mouth. [I’m going to] slap your f—ing mouth. [I’m going to] slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. F— you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.”

Understandably, there’s been an uproar over the incident. Incognito has been dismissed from the Dolphins organization. He looks terrible. The Dolphins look terrible. The NFL looks terrible.

Racism. Threats of violence. Family insults. While a number of players around the NFL have been more dismissive of Richie Incognito’s comments than the public, citing that this type of locker room talk is never taken too seriously amongst players themselves, no one has really fully embraced or justified Incognito’s remarks. Everyone says that humans should never talk to one another like that, even if it is in jest.

I obviously don’t agree with the comments either. But let me play devil’s advocate for just a moment…

Don’t we live in a country where we practice the freedom of speech? Can’t I say what I’m thinking and feeling without fear of consequence? Doesn’t Saturday Night Live, on a weekly basis, ridicule people with their free speech to the delight of the American public? Doesn’t most political advertising today consist of a defamation type tone? Where is the line? In other words, we can play mom to the entire country and say, “Okay, now you can use THIS word, but you can’t say THAT word,” but can’t we just creatively use any number of words to tear people down, hurt them, and threaten them? And really, who are you to decide which words can be used? We hear this whole “It’s a free country. I can do what I want to do and say what I want to say” schtick pretty often. But we also realize, with stories like this, the kind of damage that such an attitude can cause.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted on December 15, 1791. It states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The legal protections we have in the United States due to the First Amendment are arguably broader than any other industrialized country in the world. And it has led to many contentious, controversial court decisions, where our government has essentially said, “Okay, you’re free to say whatever you want. But no, you can’t say that.”

So here’s the tension. Post Enlightenment Western thinkers (i.e. you and me 21st century Americans) have a tendency to define “freedom” in terms of the absence of restrictions. Most every English dictionary definition for “freedom” will confirm that. As a result, our default belief is that we feel we should be able to think anything we want, say anything we want, and do anything we want. To put more practical flesh on that skeleton, our default societal belief is – “It’s a free country. We should be able to consume any amount of any substances we want, have sex with whomever we want, participate in any forms of recreation or entertainment we want, make any jokes we want, spend our money however we want, and yes, say whatever we want about whomever we want.” 

Time and time again, however, we learn that if you define freedom like that – NO RESTRICTIONS – people get hurt. Our country continues to learn this. Over time, the US Supreme Court has acknowledged this very fact regarding First Amendment Rights. We’ve basically added the stipulation that one can say whatever they want “So long as we’re not hurting anyone.” But this is problematic too. Who are you to say what words do or do not hurt someone? We don’t even have conclusive stances on what substances actually hurt people physically? For instance, fifty years ago, almost everyone was “free” to smoke. After making that mistake for a long time, we learned more about the dangers of smoking, including the effects of smoking during pregnancy and second-hand smoke. Where society had previously given freedom, it has since been taken away. Society has flipped its opinion on issues like these countless times. Therefore, we probably shouldn’t be so arrogant as to fail to realize that fifty years from now we’re going to look back at things we’re doing this very moment and cry, “What were we thinking?!?!”

Again, my point is, if you define freedom in terms of doing anything you want so long as you’re not hurting someone, then who is to say whether or not we’re actually hurting someone? Every thought, word, and action has an effect on someone/something outside of ourselves.

So, I’m suggesting that the current western definition of freedom simply must have some flaws. Can I propose a different definition?

What if freedom is not so much the ABSENCE of boundaries as it is the PRESENCE of boundaries that are in line with our nature. Here’s the old example: Say I see a goldfish swimming around in a fishbowl. I think to myself, “Those awful walls. I would like to free this poor little fish from its oppressive boundaries.” So you liberate the fish by plucking it out of the bowl and tossing it out onto the floor. And after a few moments of the fish flopping around, it dies. Have you truly “freed” the fish? Of course not. Why? Because you removed the boundaries that were necessary for its existence.

As a society, we’re regularly challenged by events like the Miami Dolphins debacle to rethink our definition of freedom, to question whether or not boundaries and restrictions are life-taking or life-giving.

So here’s the Bible’s wisdom.

Many individuals look at Scripture as harsh, binding, and oppressive. Largely due to influential twentieth century thinkers like Nietzsche and Marx, the Bible, church, and organized religion have become perceived by many as freedom-squelching power plays, established to gain control over people.

But the Bible says the exact opposite about itself. The Apostle Paul wrote, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14) Isn’t that interesting? Now think about this in terms of free speech. The Bible never gives us a list of 4-letter words that you can & cannot say (regardless of what your ultra conservative grandmother may have taught you). Rather, it tells us what we were designed for – to worship God, in part, by loving and serving one another. As a result, we wouldn’t use certain words, not because they’re one of the seven arbitrary “dirty” words that you can’t say on TV or radio, but because we shouldn’t be using any combination of words that would tear another down rather than build them up. The Bible teaches that God uses his words to create, not destroy. And we who were redeemed into his image would naturally do the same.

Don’t you see? That’s not an oppressive law. It’s a law that is in accord with your design. It’s a law that is in accord with God’s plan for human flourishing.

Coming full circle, Richie Incognito’s main problem wasn’t that he used certain stupid, racist words. That’s a symptom of a bigger problem – he didn’t love his neighbor as himself, which means that he wasn’t living in accordance with the boundaries of his God-given design.

You and I should realize that we’ve all used our words to tear others down, even if they were G-rated. In fact, there was only one man whose words were pure, and his entire life was pure, because his heart was perfectly pure. That man was the God-man Jesus.

Upon his cross, Jesus looked at the very people who stripped him, beat him, mocked him, and at that very moment were murdering him, and he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) As he paid for our sins, including our unkind words, he had only loving, merciful words because his heart was only filled with grace.

We all say and do things we’d like to take back, but we can’t. But Jesus somehow does. What I broke, Jesus fixes. And now he gives me the freedom to express myself out of that truth, calling me to use my words to sing his praises and build others up.

It’s not about what I can or cannot say. Society has no good answer for that. It’s about what God has done for me through Jesus and how that changes the way I look at others.