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Freedom not to speak

Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slower to shout back

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“I fought the wild beasts at Ephesus.”

That was Paul’s vivid memory of church planting in west Asia Minor, which he recalled while writing to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:32). He had seen a promising start in Ephesus, gathering a small body of believers and arguing daily for Jesus as Messiah in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. Miracles were happening, people were listening, and some were even hearing.

But “around that time,” as Luke records it, “there arose no small disturbance.” A protest among the local silversmiths, who believed Paul was slandering their patron goddess and hurting their business, became a citywide riot. Hundreds of people poured into the open-air theater to shout, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” They carried on for two hours, even though, as Luke wryly observes, most of them didn’t exactly know what they were yelling about.

For Americans, the freedom to say anything is vital to a functioning republic.

The hysteria of crowds hasn’t changed much. I’m reminded of the Ephesian dustup after every widely reported campus disruption, like the one at Yale Law School on March 10. Once again, screaming, wall-pounding, and chanting students shut down a scheduled speaker—but two ironies make this one notable. First, the event was a seminar on the First Amendment and free speech. Second, the disrupters were not drama or sociology majors, but law students—presumably headed for a career in law, where they will be expected to win cases by persuasive argument, not screaming at the judge.

This kind of behavior at an elite institution doesn’t bode well for the future of the legal profession, or any kind of profession where clear communication is key. Maybe the youth were ill-trained in their younger youth, like the fifth graders in my Awana group who keep interrupting me when I’m speaking. Am I just a pushover, or is unrestrained blurting typical of kids these days? (As opposed to my day, when we all listened quietly with our hands folded.)

Just as likely, the Yale students, like the Middlebury College students who shut down Charles Murray in 2017, felt entitled to say what they wanted as freely, loudly, and persistently as lung-and-throat capacity allowed because their cause was just. But their cause had nothing to do with the event sponsored by the college Federalist Society.

It was supposed to be a conversation between two political opposites about a particular Supreme Court case: Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, in which the court upheld the right of a Christian college student to share his faith on campus. The invited speakers were Kristen Waggoner, general counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, and Monica Miller, of the American Humanist Association. They intended to model how to have a civil discussion from different perspectives.

Because the infamy of the ADF preceded Ms. Waggoner, a civil discussion was doomed from the start. The first indication was students holding up signs reading “Shame,” “Be Less Mean,” and “ADF is a hate group”—not in relation to Uzuegbunam, but to the organization’s supposed persecution of trans people. Did the audience understand the case under discussion? Or were they, like the Ephesians, mindlessly shouting about what they did not know?

Free speech is not a virtue, because much of it is not virtuous. But free speech is necessary to a pluralistic society. Without it, preferred speech will strangle unpreferred speech and may even, in extreme cases, strangle unpreferred speakers. “But speech is violence!” they say. By that logic (to use a notorious example), Chris Rock was practicing violence at this year’s Oscar ceremony while Will Smith was merely exercising his right to speak.

For Americans, the freedom to say anything is vital to a functioning republic.

For Christians, the freedom not to say anything is just as crucial: to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slower to shout back. Kristen Waggoner, like Paul, was unable to address the mob, but she lives to speak another day. To speak, as she wrote in WORLD Opinions, “Truthfully, forthrightly—and with love in our hearts.” Love wins—eventually. Lord willing, we will eventually see it.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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