RTE have apologised and paid out damages after a guest suggested those opposed to gay marriage were homophobic. And a school in England has expelled a six year old for repeated lunchbox violations. So what are, or should be, the limits on freedom – of speech and of parents to feed their child what they wish?
Freedom and liberty are very important ideas, particularly in Western democracies. Though I think Kierkegaard is right to say, ‘People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought they seldom use.’
RTE, the Irish national broadcaster, have apologised and paid damages to the members of the Iona Institute after drag artist Rory O’Neill accused them of homophobia for opposing gay marriage. The apology from RTE stated:
On the Saturday Night Show on the 11th of January last, comments were made by a guest suggesting that the journalist and broadcaster John Waters, Breda O’Brien and some members of the Iona Institute are homophobic. These are not the views of RTÉ, and we would like to apologise for any upset or distress caused to the individuals named or identified. It is an important part of democratic debate that people must be able to hold dissenting views on controversial issues.
RTE were advised by senior counsel that their defence was unlikely to succeed before a jury. Its decision to settle the case has been the subject of much comment in Ireland and has even been raised in the Dáil, the Irish Parliament.
There are claims that by settling, RTE have censored legitimate debate. But that is to miss the point that words like ‘homophobe’ or ‘racist’ are highly emotive and are themselves often used to end or stifle debate. I have been on the receiving end of those insults during a number of media appearances.
Defamation is the communication of a false statement that harms the reputation of a person or group. The Iona Institute have vigorously opposed same sex marriage in Ireland, but have never said anything homophobic. The accusation was also likely to harm the reputation of the Institute – therefore it is likely to be seen as defamatory. Keeping insults and untruths out of debates is not censorship, rather it facilitates free speech.
So why did I include Dairylee Dunkers in the title? Well, six-year old Riley was expelled from his school for having them in his lunchbox. The case is probably more complicated, but schools are introducing more rules as to what children can have in their lunch boxes. Recently my brother-in-law, a dentist, was talking favourably about these rules. He was concerned for children’s teeth and deals with the consequences everyday. In contrast, I was deeply concerned about the freedom of parents to raise their children without the interference of the state. There is a very worrying piece of legislation being debated in Scotland which would potentially give the state primacy over every parent in relation to their child. The Children and Young People’s Bill in Scotland is predicated on the idea that the proper primary relationship that children will have for their well-being and development, nurturing and education is with the State rather than within their families and with their parents. There is a fascinating legal opinion on the matter here.
Freedom is not just an issue for a few Christians in the media. When we accept schools can tell parents what their children can and can’t eat, what’s next – what they can read, who they can play with?
The Bible places a high value on freedom. The biblical idea of freedom is different from, but easily confused with, the cultural value of the same name. The Exodus is a prime lens through which we see the biblical mission of God, and God puts his name – Yahweh – to it. In the Passover, Israel remembers God’s mighty acts of freedom – this profoundly shapes their story – they and we are free because of God their mighty liberator.
Jubilee and Sabbath were designed to set people free from debt and bondage, to allow then rest and time with their family. True freedom is exercised in the context of relationships and responsibilities.
In Luke 4 Jesus announces his freedom manifesto – the year of the Lord’s Jubilee.
Absolute freedom leads to anarchy – everyone does what is right in his or her own eyes. Part of freedom is choosing to forego some personal freedom for the greater good and freedom of society.
Jesus sets us free from debt, bondage, fear, shame, guilt and ultimately death.
Jesus sets us free to bless others, to show compassion, to love and bring life.
Our role as kingdom carriers is to lead the community into freedom and life.