Free-Speech Values in the Book of Mormon

Edward L Carter. Journal of Media and Religion. Volume 13, Issue 1. 2014.

Expression and the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon calls itself an “abridgement of the record” of an ancient people who left Jerusalem about 600 years before the birth of Jesus Christ and settled on the American continent. The Book of Mormon consists of 15 separate “books” written by prophets who recorded historical and spiritual aspects of their peoples’ lives. The final prophet, Moroni, lived about 400 years after Christ and buried the records in a hillside with the promise that his words would come out of the dust to future readers (Moroni 10:27). A modern introduction to The Book of Mormon says the book “contains the fullness of the everlasting gospel.” The Introduction further records that about fourteen centuries after burying the records, Moroni appeared as a resurrected being on September 21, 1823, to 17-year-old Joseph Smith, Jr., in upstate New York and eventually delivered possession of the ancient records to Smith.

The Book of Mormon says its purpose is to convince “the Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting himself unto all nations.” In 2011, the Church reported that 150 million copies of The Book of Mormon had been published and distributed since 1830. The book has been published in full in 82 languages with selections of the book available in another 25 languages. The Book of Mormon also has entered popular culture. Although not produced by or affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ, the Book of Mormon musical written in part by “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone debuted on Broadway in 2011 and spawned traveling companies to various cities around the world. The Church’s official statement on the musical said that “the production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”

The Book of Mormon has an expansive view of the value of written and oral expression. Like the New Testament (John 1:1-3), The Book of Mormon compares expression to God’s creative processes, stating that it was “by the power of his word” that God created human beings and the Earth (Jacob 4:9). The book teaches that God our Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost—the three individuals who make up the Godhead—each uses his voice to testify of the others (3 Nephi 11:10, 32). Jesus Christ Himself taught an ancient people in The Book of Mormon the importance of preaching His gospel, and He promised good things to those who teach as well as those who receive (3 Nephi 11:23, 41; 3 Nephi 12:2). However, Christ also taught followers in The Book of Mormon that certain prayers should be said in private (3 Nephi 13:5-6). He further warned that some would-be expression—such as dispute about the gospel in anger—is best left un-expressed (3 Nephi 11:28-30).

At various points during the histories recorded in The Book of Mormon, prophets wrote that God’s children should be allowed freedom to hear and accept His words, and that such freedom might require something akin to the modern rights of assembly and expression (Alma 6:5). At one point, a king declared freedom of religious expression so that missionaries could teach people without impediment and could be invited into peoples’ temples, sanctuaries and houses (Alma 23:1-6). Words spoken and written by God’s chosen leaders have a role in the ultimate judgment of the people who received those words (Mosiah 3:23-24; 3 Nephi 27:23-27). A frequent theme of The Book of Mormon is the importance of creating and preserving written histories (Mormon 8:4-5, 12-17). Spread of news played a key role during a personal visit to Book of Mormon people by the resurrected Jesus Christ (3 Nephi 19:1-3).

Written opinions from U.S. Supreme Court justices have said that The Book of Mormon deserves constitutional protection as free speech. Justice David Souter and three other members of the Supreme Court, for instance, used The Book of Mormon as an example of religious speech that government should not be allowed to ban even though some people in society might consider the book’s teachings worthless or dangerous (Zelman, 2002). The Book of Mormon was cited along with the New Testament, the Pentateuch and the Koran as religious scriptures deserving of free-speech protection, notwithstanding that their teachings against sin could be misinterpreted as hateful. Members of the Supreme Court have viewed The Book of Mormon as an important source of expression of beliefs in the public arena (Hernandez, 1989).

Free-Speech Values in the Book of Mormon

A careful review of the text of The Book of Mormon was undertaken to determine whether values similar to those underpinning modern freedom of expression could be found. In this section, each of the major free expression values is briefly defined and explained before relevant passages of The Book of Mormon are discussed. The review suggests that Mormon doctrine and history endorse the search for truth, self-governance, check on government, tolerance, and safety valve. Little if any evidence was discovered to support individual self-fulfillment or autonomy, although The Book of Mormon supports the idea that the institutional autonomy of the church to express itself freely must be preserved.

Search for Truth

The U.S. Supreme Court has said that “it is the purpose of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail …” (Kleindienst, 1972). The Court has looked back fondly on the 18th century, when the newspaper industry combined with pamphleteers and book publishers to create a “true marketplace of ideas … in which there was relatively easy access to the channels of communication” (Miami Herald, 1974). The government may not suppress or exclude minority views or support for unpopular causes from the marketplace of ideas (Members of City Council, 1984), but the government may offer its own opinion in that marketplace (Johanns, 2005). The Supreme Court has said that false statements of fact can inhibit the marketplace of ideas’ truth-seeking goal but that even false statements may be subject to some First Amendment protection (Hustler, 1988). The marketplace of ideas is open to anonymous works (McIntyre, 1995), commercial advertisements (44 Liquormart, 1996) and religious expression (Rosenberger, 1995). The Supreme Court has recognized that the Internet greatly expanded the marketplace of ideas (Reno, 1997).

Mormons believe in absolute truth from God. Individuals have the responsibility to search for, find, believe, and act on truth. God generally conveys truth through messengers, including prophets who write scripture (1 Nephi 22:30). Asserting truth and testifying of truth were of great concern to those who wrote The Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 1:3). God’s messengers of truth have no guarantee that the truths they deliver will be received, but truth messengers in The Book of Mormon were sometimes given power to confound those who disbelieved their words (1 Nephi 2:12-14). God’s chosen leaders, and their ability to convey truth, are so important that one of the preferred ways to recognize truth is to believe and act on whatever God’s prophet and other chosen leaders teach (1 Nephi 8). This, of course, necessitates that one first gain a conviction of the leaders God has chosen.

In a vision of a prophet named Lehi, the word of God was compared with a rod of iron that led God’s children to God’s love, represented by the tree of life (1 Nephi 11:25). Some of the people in the vision who followed a straight and narrow path and held onto the rod of iron all the way to the tree of life were then ashamed because of mocking by other people. Those who became ashamed “fell away into forbidden paths and were lost” (1 Nephi 8:28). As in this story, expression—here, the word of God—can lead one to truth, love and happiness. But expression—the mocking of disbelievers—can also lead one in another direction. For Mormons, speech or expression is not inherently good or bad but it may be used for positive or negative purposes. Although the marketplace of ideas, especially as described by John Stuart Mill, holds that partial truth is preferable to no truth, in The Book of Mormon a message that is only partially true can sometimes lead to great harm and take people astray (1 Nephi 13:32-34).

Although at times God commanded His messengers not to communicate certain truths (1 Nephi 14:20-30), at other times He commanded them to communicate truths even though He knew doing so would prove harmful to some innocent people. For example, a prophet named Jacob was commanded to call his people to repentance; while it seems that primarily the men were the ones whom God had commanded him to call to repentance, Jacob was told to do so in a public setting in which women and children also were present. Jacob realized that rather than hearing the “pleasing word of God,” the families of the male sinners would be subjected to “daggers placed to pierce their souls and wound their delicate minds” (Jacob 2:9). Thus The Book of Mormon has a robust vision of expression of truth even when consequences are distasteful.

In Mormons’ search for truth, sometimes discussion among mortals is not enough and people must ask God for illumination (1 Nephi 15:8-11). The Mormon search for truth is not merely theoretical. Once one finds truth, one is expected to follow it. This generally means changing one’s behavior to obey God, even if that appears difficult (1 Nephi 16:2-4). The Book of Mormon does not excuse people who do not like the truths they discover (2 Nephi 9:40). In the search for truth, the scriptures are extremely valuable (2 Nephi 28:2). People need to be open to the fact that they will not receive all truth from God at once but instead will receive truth gradually according to their willingness to embrace it (2 Nephi 28:29-30). Individuals should be open to receiving truth from multiple scriptures that God has commanded His people in various nations to write (2 Nephi 29:10-12). The Book of Mormon teaches that God reveals truth to those who desire and seek truth if they have faith and follow God’s commands (Jacob 1:5-6).

According to The Book of Mormon, truth is given in greater abundance to those who receive it and embrace it by being humble and following God’s word. Those who reject God’s truth are given less of it and they eventually lose the truth they had (Alma 12:10-11). God may allow those who teach untruths to do so for a period of time (Jacob 7). An individual who knows the truth but allows himself to be deceived and thereby teach falsity can actually convince himself that the falsities he is teaching are true (Alma 30:52-53). If individuals repent, they can find and receive truth even if they once rejected it and contended against God and His servants (Alma 11-12, 15).

The primary truth of The Book of Mormon is that Jesus Christ is the Savior and Redeemer of the world, meaning that Christ overcame sin and death as the central figure in the history of the world and thereby gave God’s children the opportunity to return to God’s presence after mortality. To reach the highest degree of eternal existence, God’s children must follow Christ and obey God the Father (2 Nephi 2:8-9). Making these truths known is of great importance, and in fact, for Mormons, preaching the word of God is one of the most powerful ways to influence others and improve the world (Alma 31:5). This explains in part the missionary zeal of members of The Church of Jesus Christ, whose primary missionary tool is The Book of Mormon itself. Writers of The Book of Mormon emphasized that their purpose in writing—they engraved their words on metal plates, which was difficult and limited what they could say (Jacob 4:1-2)—was to inform contemporaries and future readers of their faith in Jesus Christ (Jacob 4:4). Thus one of the main purposes of Mormon expression is to convince people of the ultimate truth of Jesus Christ’s Atonement (2 Nephi 25:18-25).

God and His leaders value the truths in the scriptures so much that they go to great lengths to preserve those words (1 Nephi 3-5). Prophets who wrote The Book of Mormon were commanded to write secular and religious history but recognize the distinction between valuable things of God and less valuable things of the world (Jacob 1:2-4). The speech of God’s righteous people and servants does not stop after they are dead; God makes accommodation for that speech to continue “from the dust” (2 Nephi 26:15-17). The scriptures and sacred records are preserved to bring future generations to knowledge of truth and also show God’s power to them (Alma 37). Mormon scriptures preserve the history of the sins of God’s children because that can be instructive to future people about how to avoid transgression and the consequences of it (Alma 37:21-26).


The Supreme Court has said that “speech concerning public affairs is more than self-expression; it is the essence of self-government” (Garrison, 1964). More recently, the Court affirmed that “the right of citizens to inquire, to hear, to speak, and to use information to reach consensus is a precondition to enlightened self-government and a necessary means to protect it” (Citizens United, 2010). The self-governance rationale justifies constitutional protection of information-gathering as well as information-dissemination, particularly about public institutions. Self-governance requires an informed populace (Houchins, 1978).

In The Book of Mormon, expression is valuable not just for facilitating democracy but also for enabling individual self-governance through knowledge. The Book of Mormon people who first left Jerusalem 600 years before Christ’s birth so valued the genealogical records and scriptural teachings held in Jerusalem that they went to great lengths to obtain copies, including risking their lives (1 Nephi 3-5). The records were needed to preserve language and prophetic counsel and enable future generations to make wise decisions and govern themselves. As was the case for Meiklejohn (1961), The Book of Mormon view of speech leading to self-governance recognizes that not all speech is of equal importance or value. For Book of Mormon prophets, “the things of God” were of most value and thus most worthy to be recorded in the limited scripture space they had (1 Nephi 6:4). Communication of God’s message through scriptures helped a people not “suffer[] in ignorance” (Mosiah 1:3).

Although God’s prophets and church leaders in The Book of Mormon were revered because they received and taught truth, they were also open to counseling with their people to achieve collective wisdom in non-doctrinal matters. When a king wanted to figure out how to help his people escape physical captivity of an enemy army, he first consulted with his people to get ideas and to know the “voice of the people” on the issue (Mosiah 22:1). A man named Gideon had an idea that was eventually tried, and it worked. The Book of Mormon encourages leaders to give people an opportunity to speak, to seek ideas and forge consent.

The Book of Mormon prefers self-governing societies. A prophet named Mosiah once said that people could function well under a king if the king was always righteous, but since that could not be guaranteed, Mosiah advised the people to put decision-making in the hands of a series of judges. Under this system, the voice of the people would rule. Mosiah said he believed that the voice of the majority of the people would choose what is right, not just for themselves but also for all of society. The judges were in place just to pass judgment on rare deviations. Judges were themselves to be kept in check by higher judges or bodies of other judges. Achieving equality and liberty required not just expression of ideas and opinions but also individual responsibility for behavior (Mosiah 29).

Under the new system of judges, an early test came from a man named Amlici, a follower of a dissenter named Nehor who had been executed for murder (Alma 1). Amlici was put forward as a possibility for a new king (Alma 2:2). So the people assembled and had an exercise in democratic decision-making about the matter, with groups forming both in support of and against Amlici as king. These groups had “much dispute and wonderful contentions one with another” (Alma 2:5). Although in other contexts dispute and contentions are seen as negatives in The Book of Mormon, in this context it appears the terms are used favorably to describe a democratic process. In the end, “the voice of the people came against Amlici, that he was not made king over the people” (Alma 2:7). However, Amlici demonstrated he did not truly believe in the democratic process by fomenting anger among his followers, having himself appointed king over them and ordering them to take up arms against those who supported the continued government of judges (Alma 2:8-10).

Later, the people again debated whether to do away with judges in favor of a king, and once again the democratic process resulted in keeping the judges in place. On this occasion, those who had favored installing a king were so upset by their political defeat that they refused to join the army to defend themselves against an attack by enemy forces. So a military leader named Moroni (not the same individual who buried records and then delivered them to Joseph Smith, Jr.) petitioned the government for authorization to compel them to fight. The petition was granted “according to the voice of the people” (Alma 51:16). When these dissenters still would not assist in self-defense, they were imprisoned.

The Book of Mormon records political intrigue caused by those who could not accept the result of democratic processes. At one point the people were allowed to express their views about who should serve as the next chief judge. Supporters of one losing candidate, however, could not accept the democratic result and so they hatched a plot to take power by force, but this was discovered and the leader was sentenced to death. Ultimately, though, he hired an assassin to attempt to kill the chief judge and thwart the execution plans. But a servant of the new chief judge used a disguise to obtain knowledge of the assassin’s plans and kill him instead (Helaman 1-2). On another occasion, a different chief judge determined that the people were so wicked he should leave the government and instead try to help reform the society through speech preaching the word of God. This effort succeeded and society improved (Helaman 5).

Check on Government

In the United States, “speech is an essential mechanism of democracy, for it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people” (Citizens United, 2010). Therefore, “the First Amendment goes beyond protection of the press and the self-expression of individuals to prohibit government from limiting the stock of information from which members of the public may draw” (First National, 1978). It is the “basic assumption of our political system that the press will often serve as an important restraint on government” (Minneapolis Star, 1983). For centuries in the United States, “freedom of expression [has been] essential to check tyranny” (Dun, 1985).

Mormon scripture supports the idea that expression serves a checking function not only on government but on other actors in society as well. God Himself once told The Book of Mormon people that, someday, “the things of all nations shall be made known” and “[t]here is nothing which is secret save it shall be revealed …” (2 Nephi 30:16-17). This divine promise of transparency served as a barrier to bad behavior. There is no reason, however, for humans to try to keep God in check. In other words, it’s not the case that God’s words need opposition. For Mormons, God is all-knowing and so humans should not pretend to know more or understand things better than He does. Sometimes persuasive but deceived speakers need to be kept in check through God’s influence via His prophets (Jacob 7).

The Book of Mormon teaches that monarchs and other government officials sometimes abuse their power and lead their people into hardships, and that in these cases, dissenting voices should be heeded to check government abuse of power. One overzealous leader caused his people to be deceived by their enemies and enter into a forced agreement to pay a 50% tax to the enemy king (Mosiah 7:21-22). The son of this overzealous leader became king and taxed his own people an additional 20% so he could support his own lavish lifestyle. This misguided king, named Noah, installed evil priests to help him govern the people. Noah and his priests lied to the people and failed to protect them from their enemies. God sent a messenger named Abinadi to preach repentance but also to warn that the government’s evil mismanagement and waste of resources would result in the people being taken into bondage by their enemies. Relying only on hearsay, the king wanted Abinadi killed for causing insurrection and unrest among the people. Thus The Book of Mormon anticipated the evils of seditious libel (Mosiah 11).

Although Abinadi escaped death at that time, he returned among the same people two years later in disguise and resumed his warning about the likely results of bad leadership and government mismanagement. He predicted the people’s ultimate destruction, and the people became angry and carried him before the king. The people had been sufficiently deceived by the king that they accused Abinadi of lying and said he could not really be speaking for God. The people told the king to do with Abinadi as he pleased. Noah put Abinadi in prison and later held a trial before Noah’s council of priests. During the trial, Abinadi angered Noah and his priests by accusing them of failing to keep God’s commandments, coveting riches, cavorting with harlots and causing their people to commit sin (Mosiah 12). After this, Noah declared, “Away with this fellow, and slay him; for what have we to do with him, for he is mad” (Mosiah 13:1).

God’s power kept the priests from seizing Abinadi until he finished his message, in which he taught God’s commandments and told the priests of a plan Heavenly Father made for His children to come to Earth and sin and die but then be redeemed and resurrected because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. But people had to follow Christ and repent of their sins in order to receive true happiness in eternity. Although the king briefly considered that Abinadi’s words might be true, the priests convinced him to burn the prophet to death. Abinadi predicted that Noah and his followers would suffer diseases and then be hunted by their enemies before also dying by fire, which eventually happened. Although Abinadi died, his message lived on in that one of Noah’s priests and some of his people believed Abinadi’s words, split off from Noah’s people and started a church in which they sought to follow Jesus Christ. Others of Noah’s followers eventually realized Abinadi had been right to warn them of their government’s excesses and wished they had listened to him (Mosiah 14-21).

Like Abinadi, the preachers Alma and Amulek were accused of constructive treason and seditious libel for preaching against the misguided and evil behavior of government officials and community leaders. Although he was accused of speaking against the law and fomenting dissent, Amulek said he spoke only against people, including the community’s judges and lawyers, who violated the law (Alma 10). Alma and Amulek were put in prison, where they were starved, beaten, and harshly interrogated. While the chief judge and others were going to question them in prison, Alma and Amulek prayed and received strength from God to break the cords binding them and to cause the prison walls to fall down upon their tormentors. Alma and Amulek were not harmed. Eventually, the pair had success in their preaching in other communities and established a church into which they began baptizing people. The Book of Mormon records that this constituted a “great check” upon the pride and sin of the people (Alma 14-15).

Elsewhere in The Book of Mormon the value of speech in keeping government in check is further demonstrated. A military leader wrote a scathing letter to rebuke his political superior, the chief judge, for failing to support the military effort. Chastened, the chief judge apologized and said he had been busy putting down insurrections; his goal, he said, was not to retain power for his own purposes but rather to preserve the government that ensured the liberties of the people (Alma 59-61). When corrupt judges wanted to take a preacher into custody for speaking out about their abuses of power, the only thing that prevented them from doing so was the fear of the reactions of the people (Helaman 8:1-6). Eventually the long-standing system of government by judges was destroyed when an assassin killed the chief judge. Instead of a representative government, the result was that each group of family or friends split into its own tribe and set up its own rules (3 Nephi 7:11). Those who destroyed the people’s government were disfavored by God (3 Nephi 9:9).


First Amendment scholar Lee Bollinger has advocated the idea that individuals and societies benefit as they learn to tolerate expression of messages with which they disagree (Bollinger, 1988). In a case forbidding public schools from staging prayers at graduation ceremonies, the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed the tolerance rationale for free expression and even religious expression as long as the government is not making the expression (Lee, 1992). The Court has spoken in favor of the notion that individuals in society should tolerate one another’s expression, including expressions of faith through religious prayer. The Court suggests the proper response to speech, including religious expression, with which one disagrees is not to attempt to shut the speaker down but rather to counter with one’s own contrary message:

To endure the speech of false ideas or offensive content and then to counter it is part of learning how to live in a pluralistic society, a society which insists upon open discourse towards the end of a tolerant citizenry. And tolerance presupposes some mutuality of obligation. (Lee, 1992)

The Book of Mormon teaches adherents to listen to and understand other people. A prophet named Nephi encountered his brothers “disputing one with another concerning the things my father had spoken unto them” (1 Nephi 15:2). Even though these same brothers had previously rebelled against Nephi and his father, had become angry with Nephi to the point of tying him up with cords and desiring to kill him and had struck Nephi with a rod while speaking “many hard words” against him, Nephi nevertheless listened to their disputing and tried to understand their complaints. Nephi “was grieved” at their misunderstanding and “desir[ed] to know of them the cause of their disputations” (1 Nephi 15:4, 6). He then patiently asked them if they had asked God, and Nephi explained meanings they could not understand with regard to the teachings of their father. Even after this, Nephi’s brothers sought to kill him but were chastened and humbled by the voice of the Lord.

The Book of Mormon repeatedly emphasizes that peace can be achieved between warring factions simply through persuasion, discussion and communication (Words of Mormon 1:17-18). The scriptures contain the words of the prophets testifying of Jesus Christ and His gospel, and therefore the scriptures can bridge the gap between groups of people and foster tolerance and love (Enos 1:12-16). A messenger sent by God from one people to an enemy people may be rejected by many but can do much good for those who get past stereotypes and actually listen to the message itself (Helaman 13-16). The Book of Mormon depicts a majority group’s lack of tolerance for the opinions of a minority as undesirable (Alma 35).

Safety Valve

Supreme Court Justices have described the right to speak and persuade others as an “essential safety valve on our democracy” (Hill, 2000). Scholar Thomas I. Emerson is credited with popularizing if not imagining the safety valve rationale for free-expression protections (Larson, 2013). Individuals who are allowed to let off steam are less likely to explode, and those who have been engaged in conversation about a difficult topic are more likely to support the ultimate decision taken. Free expression, even if it proves unsettling to some in the short term, ultimately promotes long-term societal stability.

The Book of Mormon provides examples of speech as a societal safety valve, allowing people to vent through public expression and thereby preventing violence. A follower of Jesus Christ named Nephi was continually targeted for murder by his own brothers because of Nephi’s efforts to persuade his brothers to follow God’s commands. On several occasions, Nephi’s persuasion and listening to the complaints of his brothers forestalled violence. Eventually, though, Nephi had to take his family and leave the presence of his brothers and their families or face violence at their hands (2 Nephi 5:6-14). The Book of Mormon teaches that people should not react violently against speech with which they disagree, even if it is religious speech calling them to repentance.

In The Book of Mormon, God uses speech to warn people of dangers so they can avoid harm. One religious leader who was targeted for death by an unbelieving king received a warning of the impending arrival of royal forces and therefore was able to leave the area with his followers (Mosiah 18:34). Other groups of people heeded God’s warning to flee even though the immediate threat was not clear (Omni 1:12-13). At times government leaders stepped in to prohibit the cutting off of religious speech, resulting in many people repenting and joining the church (Ether 7:23-27).


The U.S. Supreme Court has said there is a “fundamental rule of protection under the First Amendment that a speaker has the autonomy to choose the content of his own message” (Hurley, 1995). The autonomy rationale largely disregards the content or value of the speech itself. In the case of a St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Boston, Massachusetts, it did not matter that private parade organizers discriminated against would-be entrants based on sexual orientation because the parade organizers’ autonomy to choose their own message was paramount (Hurley, 1995). In a case involving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, two justices of the Supreme Court wrote that religious organizations must be given autonomy to select leaders, define doctrine, resolve internal disputes and operate themselves free from outside control (Corporation of Presiding Bishop, 1987). Scholars, too, have argued that private religious organizations must have autonomy in expressing a message—including the right to remove members who communicate a contrary message—if the message is to retain clarity and credibility (Paulsen, 2008; Carter, 1998).

The Book of Mormon provides little if any support for the individual autonomy and self-fulfillment rationales for free speech. Instead of using speech to serve their own needs, Mormons are commanded to use their speech for the welfare of the community of believers (2 Nephi 26:29). A prophet named Jacob said that he and his brother, Joseph, went so far as to take “upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our own heads if we did not teach them the word of God with all diligence …” (Jacob 1:19).

Still, it is clear that God understands His children will sometimes say things in disagreement with Him. Even a prophet in The Book of Mormon, a man named Lehi, was once found “murmuring” or complaining about God and the challenges of life (1 Nephi 16:20). But God reserves the right to teach His children, and sometimes that teaching includes humbling them when they complain against God. Ultimately, though, God loves His children and, even after chastening them, helps them to understand His ways (1 Nephi 16:27-29). While God gives individuals some autonomy to speak, He expects humility and willingness to learn, which might mean silence and obedience rather than expression.

Instead of individual autonomy, Mormon teaching values individual responsibility and integrity. The Book of Mormon teaches that God is who He is because everything He says, He does. Not only that, but there is power in His word to destroy, lead and do all things (1 Nephi 17:31). God gives a portion of His power and Spirit to men so that, through words, they can confound those who threaten them and can avert something as menacing as being thrown from a ship into the sea by one’s own brothers for having followed God (1 Nephi 17:48-52). While the autonomy rationale would say virtually all speech is of equal worth if its expression fulfills the speaker’s needs, Mormons’ view of the gospel of Jesus Christ is different. It recognizes differences in the value of various messages. In writing scripture, for example, a Book of Mormon prophet was inspired by God to record only sacred things and this was done for the benefit of his posterity and others who would later read the ideas recorded (1 Nephi 19:1-7).

Mormons believe God made His children free to act for themselves. They may choose good or evil. There are consequences for each, and men and women cannot choose or dictate the consequences. In the view of The Book of Mormon, choosing good leads to eternal life with God and choosing evil leads to misery. It is largely communication that will entice people one way or the other. People may choose to use their voice to pray to God. But one of the main purposes of prayer in the Mormon view is to bring one’s will into line with God’s will, and so expression in that case is not aimed to facilitate individual autonomy but rather shape individuals according to God’s desires. In The Book of Mormon, the message is more important than the messenger. If God’s chosen spokesperson turns himself over to God, he may not be able to restrain himself from teaching God’s truths. Sometimes, God’s chosen leaders are not good communicators and, like Moses, need a companion spokesperson to assist them (2 Nephi 2-4).

Although Mormon doctrine provides little support for the individual autonomy rationale, The Book of Mormon endorses institutional autonomy in free expression. In the Mormon view, the church itself must be free not only from government control or censorship of its religious message but also from the tainting influence of individual messages contrary to the church’s message when those contrary messages could be interpreted as coming from the church or its members. In The Book of Mormon, ultimate self-fulfillment and happiness come not from expressing a message of one’s own but from accepting God’s message and acting on it (2 Nephi 30:6). Of course, there is individual autonomy and freedom in how one responds to God’s message but no individual can choose the consequences (Jacob 6:6-9).

Several recorded histories in The Book of Mormon support the free-speech value of institutional autonomy. At one point, a group of young people did not believe in Christ and were not members of the church, and they began to deceive those who were in the church and to cause church members to sin. The church was forced to admonish these members. King Mosiah, the secular authority, said it was not his concern and should be handled by Alma, who was the high priest and leader of the church (Mosiah 26). So to the extent the young people in question engaged in free speech, that right was not cut off by the government but, at the same time, the government recognized the appropriateness of the church’s internal correction and even punishment for members engaging in speech contrary to the church’s own message.

Jesus Christ made clear that people in the church that carries His name are expected to further His purposes and represent Him in accordance with His wishes. Christ, of course, does not force people to join or remain in His church, but He does stand ready to receive all who are willing to do so and to follow His example and expectations. Church authorities have authority to judge whether sinners and dissenters remain part of the church or not. If they repent and change their behavior, then they are forgiven and can stay within the church. If they do not repent and follow Christ and bear His name or message in the way He wants, then church leaders assert the church’s right to remove those people from the church and not have their names associated with the church as members any longer (Mosiah 26). In the Mormon view, cutting off a certain individual’s speech—or at least that individual’s connection with the church via membership—is preferable to losing many believers because of the individual’s lies (Alma 30:47).

Preserving the church’s right to autonomy in worship, as well as preserving individual families and personal liberties, was sufficiently valuable to one Book of Mormon people to justify taking up arms and killing attackers in self-defense. Still, captured enemies of the church and its members who promised not to fight any longer were freed (Alma 43-44). Government and legal systems in The Book of Mormon did not constrain a man’s belief. Even God’s commandments favor equal protection under law. The law allowed individuals to serve God but there was no legal punishment for not doing so, though the law did punish crime (Alma 30:7-11). So the law put men on equal footing and allowed untrammeled belief, while the church also valued individual freedom but recognized that consequences follow violation of God’s law.


More than a decade ago, the scholar Judith M. Buddenbaum issued an invitation for scholars to consider media and religion together and in the context of their society:

What is needed to broaden and deepen understanding of the interplay among the media, religion, and the surrounding culture is truly interdisciplinary work that takes both media and religion seriously, that sees them in relation to each other and to the surrounding culture in which they are embedded, and that remains open to the possibility of joint and reciprocal effects among religion; media; and culture at the individual, institutional and societal levels. (Buddenbaum, 2002)

This article has attempted to respond to that invitation by examining the deep and broad support in Mormon scripture for free-speech values. Buddenbaum referenced de Tocqueville, who suggested that religious organizations and people rightfully become actively engaged in speech and conduct in the public square when society threatens equality or impinges on fundamental religious doctrines. Mormon leaders’ recent defenses of their Church’s right to speak out in public are in line with de Tocqueville’s view and are supported by the autonomy rationale for free speech in modern scholarship and jurisprudence as well as in The Book of Mormon.

Suggestions by some scholars and others that religious expression should not receive full First Amendment protection are fundamentally out of line with the history and theory of freedom of speech in the United States. The First Amendment’s free speech clause, like the religious exercise clause, is profoundly counter-majoritarian. So the fact that a religious point of view is unpopular or out of step with a majority of society is not justification to suppress its expression. Rather, the unpopularity of religious views is the very reason why religious expression should be protected from government or private censorship. Free speech, including religious expression, strengthens and stabilizes society, enables the search for truth, provides a check on government power, facilitates self-governance, and fosters autonomy. The Book of Mormon teaches Mormons to respect the contributions of free expression made by others of God’s children, and Mormons assert that others should likewise respect free-speech values of Mormon expression in the public square.