Freedom to Speak Freely

What’s in a name?  So asked one of the title characters in William Shakespeare’s classic play, Romeo and Juliet.  As someone with a rare moniker, I am drawn to stories that feature people who share my name, either as a given name or a surname.  From the Welsh, meaning “Alert One”(my wife would beg to differ), Howell ranks #219 when used as a family name.  It is extremely rare when used as a first name.  That’s why I focused on the name when I came across his story last Friday.

His name is Ken Howell.  An adjunct professor at the University of Illinois, Howell taught college courses on Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought.  Well, he did teach those classes until he was fired for sending an allegedly offensive email to one of his students.  A “friend” of the student, who reported the professor to the head of the Religion Department, claimed that Howell’s email was “hate speech.”  I believe that Dr. Howell may be guilty of using poor judgment in explaining the concept of utilitarianism to his students and he may even be guilty of using extremely tedious and, some might say, boring speech.  But not hate speech.

However, once someone levels the charge of “hate speech” at an adversary, particularly when those charges revolve around the issues of race and/or homosexuality  — as in the case of Professor Howell — then the accused’s freedom of speech abruptly ends.  Instead of dialoguing with civility and reason and agreeing to disagree on issues for which both parties hold passionate beliefs and opinions, people often choose to cut off debate by launching personal attacks against their opponents.  While individuals often have starring roles in almost any issue, we must always be careful in our discussion and dialogue to focus on issues and facts, not on people and personalities.

In my brief adventure into the world of blogging, the passion and emotion of individual bloggers (and commenters) burns hotter than the noon-day sun in the New Mexico desert during the middle of July.  Even though much heat is produced, there is all too often a scarcity of light that goes along with it.  Why should that be the case?  Because too many folks, whether they’re talking theology or sports, tend to base their arguments primarily on how they feel, not on facts.  After all, that’s a lot easier to do and much more fun!  At least it’s fun until someone gores our ox.  Then our feelings really do take over as we say and write things that we do not think through before hitting the publish or send button.  If you don’t believe it, try getting in the middle of a friendly discussion between University of Florida Gator fans (my brother-in-law) and USC Trojan fans.  Not pretty.  Those fan discussions make the Ergun Caner debate look tame by comparison.

I wish that I could say that I always argue with the facts front and center.  That has not been the case in the past nor will it be in the future.  I will argue passionately for what I believe, but I will strive to the best of my ability to back up my arguments with facts, reason, and Scripture.  Regardless of who reads my blog — from fellow Southern Baptists to my Jewish and Catholic fraternity brothers from college to non-believers and skeptics — I hope to have an open dialogue where opposing views are welcomed and encouraged.  Unless you use foul and/or offensive language, I’ll listen respectfully to what you have to say.  And, even though we may sometimes strongly disagree on the issues, I’ll never move to cut off debate.  After all, isn’t the freedom to speak freely one of our most basic and precious rights?

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About Howell Scott

I have been a Southern Baptist pastor for the last fourteen years. Before entering the ministry, I was a practicing attorney in my homestate of Florida. I have been married to my wife, Brenda, for 18 years and we have three sons, Stephen, Jacob, and Andrew.
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