Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Freedom to Listen, or Not

My father, a man who dedicated his entire life to defending his nation through military and then civil service, once said this to me about Freedom of Speech:

“Son, Freedom of Speech means you can say whatever you want, but it does not mean anyone has to listen to you, or to help you say it.” I think my father had his finger on a valid distinction that many have lost… The right of free speech does not mean a right to have others pay any attention at all to what you say.

For the four years I sponsored and administered an online discussion forum about Deism, one of the hardest tasks was to maintain both a level of civil decorum and collegial fellowship at the same time as I sought to provide as broad a free speech environment as I could. For most people, this was not a problem… but that certainly was not true of all. From unwanted Christian Evangelism to individuals who seem to have no intent other than to insult others, I eventually had to develop an online Behavioral Covenant for participating in the forum.

There were two main problems… individuals who wanted to post content that had absolutely nothing to do with Deism, but rather was often focused on some mono-passion of theirs, and individuals who had malicious intent.

Some of the posts that fell into these two categories were obvious… spam is spam. Why exactly a forum on Deism would attract so many posts about Viagra is something that does not bear thinking on. 😉 But as I developed the covenant for that online community, I had to deeply think about what Freedom of Speech means in this new, modern, information world.

As someone who has sworn his life to the defense of such freedoms, I take that discernment very seriously.

In many ways, the internet has been the greatest boon to the Freedom of Speech in the history of human kind. Not only can you now, in many countries, speak your mind, but you can do so in a way the whole world can connect with if they wish.

I am currently working with two colleagues to set up a course at our church that will introduce members to Unitarian Universalist history. In preparing the curriculum for that class, I was reminded of the hundreds of different journals that existed throughout the histories of both the Unitarian and the Universalist churches. At many times in our histories, dozens of magazines and periodicals would debate issues of theology, social justice, and church politics. One journal might be pro-inherent salvation Universalism, another journal at the same time in the same town might be putting forth generic imitrex for sale ideas of a purgatory prior to eventual salvation by a loving God. One journal might be pro-war to end slavery, another journal might be anti-war, and promoting peaceful abolition.

The freedom of speech in our movement rested not only in that the publishers of these journals could use them to say what they felt was right, but there was an inherent debate between the different journals as well. UU World is a descendent of these journals, as is the Universalist Herald. But what I realized as I was putting together the upcoming class is that there are other, more modern descendents.

Unitarian Universalist Blogs have become to our movement what those journals once were. Not only are we once again able to put forth issues of theology, denominational politics, world events, and local news for debate and discussion, but bloggers read other blogs. What is developing between us is a running discussion, carried out in different blogs just as such debates were once carried out in different journals, magazines, and periodicals.

But just as the editors of a magazine have the right to control what content is within their pages, so too do bloggers have the right and even responsibility to control what content is posted in their blogs… including what comments by readers are accepted and published.

Recently, I have had several submitted comments from a particular individual. I investigated who this person was, and discovered that they have a blog with a very particular focus. Some of the actions they have taken (highlighted in their blog) seem to me both aggressive and even malicious. The comments that have been submitted here have not been focused on the content of Celestial Lands, but rather seeking to advertise their particular viewpoint… which is deeply contrary to mine.

So, I have not, and will not approve any comments from this individual.

Now, I am sure that, on this person’s blog I will be castigated for this decision, and for stating it publically. So long as the individual does not stray into the realm of slander, I am fine with that. Such is as it should be. They have freedom of speech, and they have a blog with which to express that freedom. Nothing requires I allow them to express it here, at Celestial Lands.

And such castigation, should it occur, is a wonderful example of the kind of interaction between what was once periodicals, and now blogs that has a deep root in the continual discussion and debate at the heart of Unitarian Universalism.

And, perhaps through this kind of interaction between our individual freedom to speak our minds, we will find a few people willing to listen.

Yours in Faith,


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