Led Into the TruthWhat is happening to Free Speech?

If you pay attention to the news today, it seems that civil rights are getting less popular.  The criterion of "offense" is on the rise.  This "offense" that we hear of so frequently is not related except weakly and tangentially to the classic notion of an offense against truth.  Modern offense is defined simply: when one person proposes an idea or expresses a thought that goes against my own conception of my self-value, however divorced from reality that conception might be.  It is, in essence, a thought crime, and it is increasingly-and disturbingly-establishing itself as the dominant criterion for basic decisions concerning the governance of society.

The Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis humanae, promulgated in 1965 by Pope Paul VI, outlines the freedom from coercion that forms the basis for the human person to develop closely held and firmly believed ideas:  

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom.  This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits. (§2). 

Religious freedom, which is a right that exists fundamentally in the nature of the human person and human community prior to the establishment of some political form of governance, also depends on the freedom of expression contained in speech.  The logic behind the First Amendment's protection of "unpopular" speech when pertaining to defending someone burning the American flag or gathering to protest various forms of injustice is the same logic that protects the religious individual who wishes to speak of his or her most deeply held religious beliefs in the public square.  This freedom of expression, whether in physical manifestation or in the spoken or written word, is an essential guarantor that public discourse has the latitude to seek truth wherever it may be found.

That said, Dignitatis humanae also noted that expression can legitimately be limited when the quest for truth is not contained therein: 

It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed. (§2)

The criterion for determining what expression is destructive to the public order and what expression is protected free speech is truth: is the purpose of the expression to bring one closer to truth?  This does not mean that one must actually present the truth in their expression-they might be, and frequently will be, in full or partial error, but for discourse to remain civil, there must be a truth claim inherent in the expression.  Once the claim has been made on truth, then civil discourse can explore that claim, augmenting or refuting it as the case and opportunity may be.  Thus, physically threatening speech or false and libelous speech can be suppressed within the limits of the law.  The is the meaning of the expression "just public order."

I remember the first time I saw Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, I was moved to tears by the scene of the brutal scourging of Jesus-especially when Mary falls to her knees in the aftermath to so carefully attend to his spilt blood.  Now that I am older, it is rather the betrayals that so disturb me.  In our present day, with unpopular speech increasingly suppressed rather than engaged, I cannot help but think of the scene of the midnight trial of Jesus and the moment in which one member of the Sanhedrin comes forward to question the legality of the inquiry only to be abused and hushed by the angry and suppressive retorts of the others present who have an agenda to forward.  I cannot help but think that we see more and more of this happening each day.

The overwhelming response that I saw in much of the media to the protest-however intelligent or misguided it might have been-of Kim Davis to issuing same-sex marriage licenses was not to engage her on the level of reason, but was simply to bash her character.  I saw numerous articles, posts, Facebook rants, etc., questioning her intelligence and her motives and accusing her of all forms of bigotry, but very little in the way of actual engagement.  

I have watched videos of reporters and photographers being physically prevented from exercising their 1st Amendment rights as they try to record the goings on at the University of Missouri, which is objectively a huge story, if for no other reason than that this might mark the moment in which college football players become "self-aware," so to speak, and realize their collective power of influence.  The only argument proffered in this 1st Amendment debacle is that protesting students have a right to "safe space" in public places.  No word on whether the protesters realize that without freedom of the press and speech, there is no such thing as safety.  

I have read stories of free speech being bashed at Yale University, as protesters registered their complaints over Halloween costume admonishments and protested the Buckley Conference on The Future of Free Speech.  

These stories are not isolated, and they seem to be growing in frequency.  The common thread seems to be that the group with the purportedly more "popular" viewpoint is challenging the very right of the opposing viewpoint to exist or to receive a fair hearing.  I simply don't see how this lack of civil discourse can lead to anything that those who wrote the Constitution-or those who wrote Dignitatis humane-would recognize as good.  There seems to be no criterion of truth, only an increasingly blatant exercise of power: whoever holds the power determines what speech is acceptable, and what is considered too "offensive" to be tolerated.  

The Second Vatican Council, in Nostra Aetate, in Dignitatis humanae, and in Unitatis redintegratio, promoted the propositional model of dialogue: we are called to propose the truth of Christ, but not to impose it.  Assuming the natural law as our base (which is no small assumption today), this propositional model respects the intrinsic dignity of each person and the often-delicate process of the maturation of conscience.  But foundational to this sort of civil and religious discourse is a commitment to seek the truth, beauty, and goodness in all things.  Where free expression-especially of the good-is not tolerated, there is no commitment to truth, but rather an exercise in chaos.  This chaos stems from the divorce of rights and truth, which is the source of all forms of totalitarianism.  So long as we allow this divorce to continue, we're in for a lot more chaos.

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