When Freedom of Expression Becomes a License to Hurt

Jello de los Reyes

March 08, 2021

As a graduate of journalism and mass communication, I am a staunch advocate of the freedom of speech, of expression, and of the press.

When I was in college, I spent most of my life as a campus journalist who was deeply devoted to exposing corruption, pointing out wrong culture, and lending my voice to the voiceless. If I wasn’t in class or in the press office, you’d find me walking around the campus interviewing people, gathering facts, covering events, or searching for new ideas for my articles. I even dreamed of becoming a journalist until God called me to a different direction.

Social media looked and functioned differently back then. It was basically a tool for connecting with friends or exchanging testimonials with each other.

But the introduction of the hashtag in 2007 opened new possibilities in social networking and transformed the way people use social media worldwide. Because of this simple yet revolutionary breakthrough, social media has evolved from being just a tool for networking and entertainment to being a powerful weapon for activism, social responsibility, information dissemination, and even political campaigns.

Indeed, social media has empowered literally everybody to speak their mind and express themselves. By providing a platform with an immediate audience, everyone on social media can share their views, showcase their talents, or create content that will express who they are or what they want to share. This wasn’t the case before social media.

This breakthrough, however, is both a blessing and a curse. In recent months, we’ve seen the power of social media in unifying individual voices and amplifying them to make a collective stand against injustice, inequality, and corruption. We’ve seen how our policymakers bowed before the collective will of the netizens and backpedaled on some issues that could further enrage the people. 

On the other hand, we’ve seen how social media has given rise to toxic cultures that hurt and divide society. Among these things are cyberbullying, cybersex crimes, and what we now know as “cancel culture.”

Freedom of expression or socially disruptive behavior?

Where do we draw the line?

Freedom of expression is a basic human right and one of the core values of a democratic society. In the Philippines, freedom of expression is protected in the Constitution, the highest law of the land. It prohibits the passage of any law or ordinance that will prevent people from freely expressing their ideas and sentiments. It ensures that people are able to discuss and debate opinions without fear of punishment or persecution.

But if we are free to speak our mind no matter what, does it give us immunity from punishment or accountability when our words cause harm to others?

Alfred George Gardiner, a poet and journalist, addressed this conundrum very profoundly: “A person’s freedom ends where another person’s freedom or right begins.”

Freedom of expression is never absolute. In a legal sense, this freedom comes with inherent limitations. There are laws and regulations that govern the exercise of our individual freedom to make sure that it does not violate another person’s rights.

Inasmuch as we have the right and freedom to express ourselves, we also have a duty to society and our fellowmen. In the same way, the government has a sworn duty to ensure the equal protection of its citizens. Hence, we may be free to speak our mind, but we are not free to spread disinformation, hatred, and negative messages that will harm people and our democratic institutions.

For instance, a person may freely disagree with someone’s political view and express his disagreement online, but he is not free to maliciously attack a person’s character or spread lies about the person he disagrees with. Such behavior is called libel and is punishable by law.

True freedom means being able to live as we should, not just as we please. If all people are free to do according to their pleasure and preferences without regard to other people’s rights, there will be chaos.

Freedom without restraint results in anarchy and disunity. If the exercise of our freedom is coming from a posture of entitlement or hatred, we will cause damage to people whether intentionally or not.

Freedom of expression doesn’t mean freedom to spew hatred, demolish another’s reputation, destroy relationships, or attack other’s beliefs. It was meant to promote growth through a healthy exchange of ideas, not to sow hatred and division through hateful speech and divisive words.

How do we exercise this freedom responsibly?

Proverbs 18:21 tells us that our words—symbolized by the proverbial tongue—hold the power of life and death. This means that our words carry more than just ideas; they have power to either build up or destroy.

The responsible exercise of our freedom of speech is so much more than just a civic duty. For Christians, our speech is a reflection of our new identity in Christ and our citizenship in God’s kingdom.

If that’s the case, how then can we be more responsible in exercising free speech especially on social media? What should we consider when sharing a meme, posting our views, commenting on trending topics, or simply exercising our freedom of expression?

The Bible gives us the following commands and guidelines:

Seek the good of others. Will your post be constructive or beneficial for those who will read it? “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.” (1 Corinthians 10:23–24)

Refrain from unwholesome content. Will your post build up or strengthen others? Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29)

Don’t be a stumbling block to others. Will it cause those who are weak in the faith to stumble? Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Corinthians 8:9)

Don’t use your freedom to hurt others. Is your post motivated by love? For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (Galatians 5:13)

Represent Jesus well. Does it accurately reflect the Lordship of Jesus in your life? And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father.” (Colossians 3:17)

Ultimately, the words we say and the things we share online are only a reflection of the condition of our hearts. Jesus said that a person speaks out of the overflow of the heart (Luke 6:45).

Hence, exercising our freedom of expression responsibly is not just about policing what we post, but about allowing our hearts to be transformed by God so that what comes out of it will only be motivated by love—for Jesus and for others, too.

For people whose hearts have been transformed by God, freedom of expression is a tool to serve others not a license to hurt or spread hatred.

Let me leave you with these two questions:

When you do a quick scan of your social media feed, what does it reveal about the condition of your heart?

What can you do to maximize your social media platforms to build up others and fight for righteousness and justice in a way that honors God?

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The Author

Jello de los Reyes

Jello is an introvert who loves to spend time with students. He once dreamed of becoming a journalist to expose evil in government, but God’s destiny for him is to root out evil in the hearts of men as a minister of the gospel. For him, nothing beats the joy of seeing young students surrender their lives to Christ. Jello currently serves as the editor-in-chief of ENC.ph.

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