Freedom of speech is a fundamental human value. This value seems to have its home in liberal democracy. In fact, liberal democracy exalts freedom of speech over all other values. Unfortunately, the exaltation of this freedom has led to its degradation. Today freedom of speech lacks rational and ethical constraints. Divorced from truth, freedom of speech has become a license to lie. To redeem and elevate freedom of speech, let us explore its pristine origin, the Bible of Israel.
Recall Abraham’s questioning the justice of G-d’s decision to destroy Sodom: “Peradventure there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt Thou indeed sweep away and not forgive the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked, that so the righteous should be as the wicked; that be far from Thee; shall not the Judge of all earth do justly?”
G-d permits Abraham to question Him. By so doing, the King of Kings affirms freedom of speech as a fundamental human right. But clearly this right, from a Judaic perspective, can only be derived from man’s creation in the image of G-d. Only because man is endowed with reason and free will does he have a right to freedom of speech. This right, however, must be understood in terms of the purpose or function of speech.
Speech is not an end-in-itself or mere exercise in self-expression. Rightly understood, speech is a manifestation of reason, the quintessential function of which is to communicate ideas and inquire into their truth or falsity, their justice or injustice. Hence, speech is an intellectual-moral phenomenon. To divorce speech from truth is to relegate this distinctively human faculty to a mere instrument of self-aggrandizement and to reject the biblical concept of man’s creation in the image of G-d. This is the current tendency of democracy, a tendency that degrades man and makes a mockery of his right to freedom of speech.
(Need I cite the corruption of speech in America, where the entertainment media befoul language, and where political journalism has been reduced to propaganda?)
It cannot be said too often—it is hardly said at all—that if freedom of speech is divorced from truth, democracy is no more justifiable than tyranny. More precisely, if there are no objective standards by which to distinguish right from wrong, or modesty from shamelessness—whether in speech or in behavior—then there are no rational grounds for preferring democracy to totalitarianism.
Notice, moreover, that the denial of objective moral standards does not logically justify the toleration of all lifestyles. Moral relativism undermines any objective grounds for preferring tolerance to intolerance, hence freedom of speech to censorship.
It has been said that the only rational defense of freedom of speech or of intellectual freedom is that it can facilitate the quest for truth, including the truth about how man should live. But no such quest can even begin unless we already know, in some general and authoritative way, what is right and wrong. Clearly, the claim to academic freedom can have no justification unless it is commonly understood that it is wrong to cheat or deceive, to plagiarize or steal, to defame or murder. This suggests that moral relativists, who very much dominate the academic world, take civilization for granted.
The true father of civilization is none other than Abraham who, by discovering the Creator of man, discovered the moral unity of human nature. The moral unity of human nature presupposes the rule of reason over self-regarding passions, of moral suasion over brute force and arbitrariness. It is in this light that we are to understand the destruction of Sodom. G-d tolerates Abraham’s questioning because Abraham’s speech is not a mere ventilation of emotion. To be sure, Abraham is the exemplar of compassion. But Abraham’s compassion is informed by truth, that is, by his knowing the difference between righteousness and wickedness. Apart from such knowledge, freedom of speech is noise or nonsense.