The Government Cannot Compel Speech


In a scene from George Orwell’s “1984,” an interrogator tells the protagonist Winston Smith: “In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it.” In the fictional world of 1984, the state compels belief, even beliefs contrary to fact. In our real world a recent Supreme Court ruling ensured that the government could not compel belief. On June 30, 2023, the United States Supreme Court ruled in 303 Creative v. Elenis that the state of Colorado could not compel the speech of Lorie Smith.
Mainstream media outlets incorrectly portray this case. Some frame it as a win for religious freedom. Others argue that it limits the rights of minority persons (such as those with same-sex attraction). Neither narrative describes reality. 303 Creative v. Elenis reaffirms the First Amendment. It protects the freedom of speech of every individual and restricts the government’s ability to compel speech. This benefits everyone.
The case centers around Lorie Smith and her business 303 Creative. Her business would offer unique website designs for couples who want to marry. She would not, however, create personal websites expressing views about marriage with which she disagreed. She filed a lawsuit in federal district court seeking an injunction to prevent the state of Colorado from forcing her to create websites opposed to her views. Lower courts ruled that the state could coerce her speech and force her to create content against her conscience. The Supreme Court ruled against this.
This ruling benefits people of faith. Ms. Smith is a Christian. As part of her filing, she argued that her Christian faith precluded her from designing websites for same-sex weddings. As Catholics, we believe that marriage is an exclusive partnership between a man and a woman. This follows both from the nature of biology and the revelation of Christ. This Supreme Court ruling ensures that we as Catholics are not compelled by the government in our businesses, workplaces, schools, or other public places to profess views about marriage (and other topics) contrary to our faith. It ensures that other citizens may follow their convictions without government coercion forcing them to do otherwise.
More importantly, this ruling benefits all people. If we live in a society in which we are able, backed by government sanction, to coerce others to say things that we believe, then in that very same society we will be forced by others to say things that we do not believe. I can compel your speech and you can compel mine. Coercion will not just be limited to the cultural currents of the day. We can imagine many examples. As Supreme Court Justice Gorsuch points out, if any speech of an artist is compelled, then all speech will be compelled.
Some argue that this ruling gives businesses a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of a protected class. This is not the case. The Court acknowledges that Ms. Smith would design a website for anyone regardless of identity. That is distinct from compelling her to create content that violates her conscience.
In pluralistic societies with varying and contrary viewpoints, freedom of speech is essential. It means tolerating opposing viewpoints, rather than stamping them out by government coercion.