Freedom of speech is an essential characteristic of any successful society. If people are not free to say what they believe, there can be no testing of ideas against each other and against reality. Without that, there can be no progress in science, in art, in literature, in education, in society and policy.

But the fact that freedom of speech is essential does not mean there are no limits. Famously, freedom of speech does not give anyone the right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. Unless, of course, there is a fire. Speech that would cause grave harm by generating panic is rightly proscribed.

A just society is also right to place limits on hate speech, where hate speech is words intended to generate hatred against an individual or group, and to cause deliberate harm. Words which demand actions which are proven to be harmful to individuals or groups may also be restricted. For example, persons purporting to be health professionals should not be able to suggest to worried parents that bleach enemas will cure their child’s autism.

Beyond these extreme examples, a free and open society should be willing to tolerate a wide range of views, even when those views make some groups or individuals distressed or angry.

On social media I will unfriend and even block people who repeatedly post holocaust-denying material, or anti-semitic news or cartoons, including claims Israel has no right to exist or to defend its borders, or who post anti-vaccination propaganda. All of those views are dangerous, and misinformed if not deliberately ignorant. I want no part in sharing them or passing them on. But I would not want the government or employers to enforce rules which meant those people could not express their views without risk of fines, imprisonment or loss of employment.

There are some obvious exceptions. You should not expect to be able to work for the Salvation Army, for example, while publicly expressing the view that the Salvation Army is stupid, and its views on drugs and alcohol are oppressive. You cannot expect to work in a paediatrician’s practice while publicly maintaining that childhood vaccinations are a dangerous scam designed to make doctors more money.

Holocaust denial is simply silly, and is almost always based in malice. But making the expression of such views illegal creates the impression there is something to hide, or of fear of the truth. As far as possible, where it does not cause grave and immediate harm, the expression of any opinion should be permitted.

But being entitled to express your views does not mean anyone is obliged to listen to them. Nor is any person or business obliged to give you a platform for your views. When social media giants like Twitter, Facebook and Google shut down conservative writers, they are not impinging on anyone’s freedom of speech. They are sovereign companies and can enforce whatever rules and policies they like. No one forces you to use them. If your views are not welcome there, find somewhere else.

Nor does freedom of speech mean you are free from the natural consequences of what you say. If you are free to say what you wish, people are free to respond as they wish. They may decide they don’t like you, or that you are stupid or a bigot. They may decline to invite you to their home or to events, they may block you on social media. They may decide not to do business with you.

At what point does government or an employer have the right to demand someone keep their views to themselves? Most people would say when there is clear danger of grave and immediate harm. Israel Folau’s Instagram post a few weeks ago, and his comments at church, caused deep offence in some circles. Do they cross that line?

Taking offense is not always an unreasonable or juvenile reaction. There are ideas and graphics on social media I find offensive. When they appear I either ignore them, or if the person who posted them seems open to reason and discussion, I may try to engage in some fact-based discussion. What is juvenile is demanding that someone else take action because you are offended. Especially when, as in Israel Folau’s case, people appear to have gone out of their way to find something to be offended about.

No one is obliged to follow Israel Folau on any social media platform. I don’t. Nor is anyone obliged to go the church he goes to. If you don’t like something someone says on Facebook or Instagram, either engage with them and show them where they are wrong, or ignore the post, or unfriend or unfollow them.

But wait just a gol-darned minute.

If someone is whipping up hatred against another person or group, it does not matter whether that takes place in an auditorium or a phone booth. If speech is intended to cause deliberate harm to others, and is foreseeably likely to do so, then society not only has a reasonable interest in imposing restrictions, but a responsibility to do so.

I have gay friends. The best man at my wedding, my best friend at the time, is gay and is a supporter of the re-definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. I have gay family members. I would be distressed and angered if anyone suggested they were less worthy than others, or somehow less human, and that it was therefore appropriate to hate or exclude them.

Is that what Israel Folau was doing? If you follow only the mainstream media you might have got that impression. His post on Instagram and subsequent comments in church have been framed as a deliberate and malicious campaign against gay people and their rights by a militant homophobe. But media and corporate lobbyists are often wrong, so if we want to arrive at a fair appraisal, we need to look at what Israel Folau actually posted and said.

The Instagram post that started the furore was a quote from chapter six of St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.

The focus of this passage of scripture is twofold. First, sin separates us from God. When we choose to step outside God’s perfect will for us, we turn away from what gives us life. It is as if a plant decided it no longer needed sunlight and water and was going to go its own way. The results of our choosing to do it our way are all around us – loneliness, frustration, anger, despair. The ultimate result for us as individuals if we continue to choose our own path rather than God’s, is eternal separation from Him, not by His will but ours.

Paul tells us that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All of us. That is the point of the list quoted by Folau. It is the opposite of singling out any group for derision. I am on the list at least twice. Everyone is on the list. We have all turned aside, we are all lost, none is better than any other. Incidentally, although it often goes unmentioned, this is the reason homosexual persons male or female are safer and more respected in predominantly Christian countries, or countries with a long history of Christian influence, than anywhere else. Yes, homosexual acts are sinful, and so is lying, disrespect for parents, drunkenness, laziness, etc, etc. To homosexual persons who say “But you are saying we are sinners and will go to hell” St Paul, Israel Folau, and other Christians reply “Yes, exactly like all the rest of us.”

The second focus of St Paul’s list, and its ultimate purpose, is to let people know that whatever the nature of their particular temptations and sinfulness, no matter how far they have turned off the path, it is always only one step back. St Paul’s list, shared by Israel Folau, is an invitation to everyone to return home, to find life, light, hope, and peace again, and most importantly, an eternal life of joy. Again, this is the opposite of singling out a group for hatred and exclusion. It is a universal invitation to love and fellowship.

“Well, OK,” some might say. “But what about his targeting of trans-gender kids? There can be no excuse for that.” And that would be right, if that were what had happened.

But it wasn’t. Folau said that children needed to be protected against early sexualisation. It didn’t matter whether gay or straight. Just let children be children. That is a long way from attacking children.

He also suggested children needed to be protected against activist practitioners and bureaucrats and misguided parents into being pressured to make decisions they could not understand, which would cause them serious harm, and which they would later regret. There is a large body of experience and evidence to support this point of view.

Johns Hopkins Hospital was one of the pioneers of sex-change surgery. It no longer performs sex-change operations because it found a high level of profound regret post-surgery, higher levels of depression, and far higher levels of suicide. Its psychiatrists and surgeons formed the view that gender dysmorphia is a psychological problem that needed psychological solutions, and that attempts at surgical intervention were counter-productive, even destructive.

You may disagree, and you are free to quote other studies or experiences to support your point of view. But that does not mean that Israel Folau’s views are hateful or malicious.

As I write, today’s news reports that Maria Folau, a Silver Fern, a member of New Zealand’s national netball team, has been targeted by the ANZ and another corporate sponsor, and her dismissal from the team demanded, because she has not publicly rebuked her husband or distanced herself from him. The ANZ, for heaven’s sake, that champion of social justice and paragon of corporate responsibility.

You have to wonder whether in omitting the context of Folau’s views and the passage of scripture he shared, and the distortion of his comments, and now the targeting of his family, his accusers are not doing exactly what they indict him of; singling out an individual or group for exclusion and hatred.

There has also been ridicule and hatred directed at the Folau family because they asked for support in meeting legal costs. But here too, there are other things to keep in mind. Israel Folau has already put over $100,000 of his own money into paying legal bills and countering persecution neither he nor any member of a free society should have to face. He has assets, but that does not mean he has large amounts of cash. Footballers have a short career, generally no more than fifteen years to build up assets to provide for their families for a lifetime. Folau has done this responsibly and carefully.

My wife and I give over $400 per month to various church groups and charities. If I choose to give $20 to Folau’s defence fund this is in addition to, not instead of anything else. I suspect this is the case for most who have contributed. It is interesting that so many people seem to have discovered an interest in sick children over the last few days, and are suddenly inspired to claim loudly that sick children are more important than justice. Both are important.

It doesn’t matter whether you agree with Israel Folau or not. If you have ever posted anything on social media anyone could disagree with or find offensive, or ever said anything in any gathering that an over-zealous employer could claim had potential to bring his or her business into disrepute, eventually the mob will come for you.

Who will stand with you then?