Je suis Charlie. This is the cry that could be heard throughout the streets of France and around the world this past month in response to the Jan. 7 terrorist attack at the Charlie Hebdo magazine headquarters in Paris. It is a cry that celebrates the freedom of speech and of the press, and it is a message of defiance against those who would use terrorism in an attempt to suppress those rights. It is a phrase that was tweeted by millions worldwide in the wake of the attack, and was on the tongues of over 40 world leaders as they linked arms on Jan. 11 in Paris to stand against extremism. And it should remind us that speech, even when it is distasteful or blasphemous, should never be limited.
In the U.S., the First Amendment prohibits the government from limiting nearly all forms of speech, press, assembly, and religion. Many European countries, including France, have similar laws that assure their citizens the same. Charlie Hebdo defiantly exercised its rights by mocking Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and other political and cultural themes. Yet that hasn’t stopped protesters and pundits from decrying what Charlie Hebdo was justified in publishing.
On Jan. 16, Euro News reported that hundreds in Algeria, Niger, Turkey, and Pakistan stood against the satirical magazine for its depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, an act punishable by death in some Islamic countries. In Istanbul, demonstrators performed funeral prayers for the extremist brothers who carried out the Paris massacre, believing that what they saw as the magazine’s blasphemy justified the terrorists’ actions. Pope Francis, who is often noted for his relatively progressive views, said, “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith,” asserting that “there is a limit” to freedom of speech, as reported by NBC on Jan. 15.
In the West, too, there is a cultural pressure to avoid offending people. New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks argued Charlie Hebdo’s controversial content would be considered hate speech if it were published in the United States. “If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades,” he wrote, “it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds.”
Charlie Hebdo’s satire, though, probably would not qualify as hate speech. Under federal law, hate speech is defined as the expression of hatred for a group in which the communication is likely to provoke violence, according to the American Bar Association. Laws must be in place to defend people from that sort of aggression, but exactly what qualifies as hate speech must be chosen very carefully as to not undermine our freedom.
Satire and other forms of critique have always been powerful journalistic tools used to bring attention to otherwise sensitive problems or issues. Yet if governments were to start classifying this sort of media as hate speech, much could go wrong.
On the surface, government restriction of some speech may only deprive a small group of radicals from expressing their viewpoint, but with such legislation in place there is an opportunity for it to be abused. Because of this danger, media outlets should applaud Charlie Hebdo for not being afraid to express its opinions in the face of opposition. Instead, CNN and MSNBC refused to show an inoffensive Charlie Hebdo cover on air simply because it depicted Muhammad, which implied that their staffs thought the Hebdo covers weren’t appropriate for audiences.
The effects of increasing censorship can be seen in modern Turkey. This secular democracy and United States ally is currently in the process of ripping the freedom of speech away from its people. According to a Guardian report, journalists, news anchors, musicians, and even students have been imprisoned by the hundreds with charges ranging from terroristic speech to insulting religious values. In reality, these people have simply criticized Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or rallied for free public education.
Clearly, there should not be, as the pope says, “a limit” to the freedom of speech, nor should there be laws that protect people from being mocked and offended for who they are or what they believe. Everyone will disagree with, and may even be offended by, some opinions they encounter. But the beauty of the universal nature of freedom of speech is that one can not only express an opinion, but also respond to an opinion with which one disagrees. I fully stand behind everyone’s right to the freedom of speech, even if I do not agree with their messages. I will proudly say that I too am Charlie Hebdo. Je suis Charlie.