Charlie Hebdo and the limits of free speech

January 14, 2015
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By Lea Z. Singh |

I keep coming across people who seem to believe that Charlie Hebdo overstepped the proper limits of free speech. The trouble seems to be that aside from insulting Muslims by portraying Muhammad, Charlie was also publishing highly offensive cartoons which targeted Catholics.

A common opinion among Catholics thus appears to be that such insulting cartoons should not be legal, or at least, that Charlie Hebdo should have been self-censoring and not producing them. Some Catholic commentators have even gone so far as to suggest that Charlie Hebdo provoked the terrorist attack and that these journalists are in some way responsible for their own deaths.

Here in Canada, such reactions are to be expected. After all, Canadians have already become accustomed to living under the oppression of hate speech laws and arbitrary leftist Human Rights Commissions, We don't expect to have free speech anymore.

As Neil MacDonald discusses on the CBC:
My guess is that an English-language version of Charlie Hebdo wouldn't last even a few days in Canada before concerned Muslim or Christian or Jewish citizens would be demanding charges be laid under Canada's hate-speech laws, or dragging the magazine before one of our provincial human rights commissions that specialize in rooting out offensive expression.
Were Charlie Hebdo's cartoons "hate speech"?

For good or ill, many Western countries today have hate speech laws. That includes France. As described in one article, the French law is that "insulting people based on their religion is a crime punishable by a fine of €22,500 and six months in jail. In addition to religion, that law covers insults based on race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, or disability."

So why wasn't Charlie silenced under the French hate speech laws? Well, it wasn't for lack of trying. An Islamic Mosque already sued Charlie Hebdo under these laws, but the magazine won the case in 2007. The judge concluded that some of the cartoons in question were targeted only at violent Muslims, while another cartoon, albeit shocking and potentially insulting to all Muslims, was newsworthy because it furthered the public debate.

Frankly, I have to agree with the court decision there. Op-ed cartoons are classic free speech. They are aimed at stirring up public debate. They may be shocking and provocative, but their main purpose is satire to make a greater political point.

While Muslims are forbidden to portray Muhammad or even to write his name, Charlie Hebdo is not a Muslim publication, and cannot possibly be expected to be bound by the rules of Islam, whether this particular rule or any others. Muhammad may be sacred to Muslims, but the rest of the world is still free to comment on him and on the Muslim religion, and to criticize as they see fit.

But what about the cartoons that so disgracefully offend Catholics? They were never tested in court, to be sure. However, chances are that they too would be cleared as free speech. As offensive as they are to members of the Catholic religion, these cartoons are very arguably at the 'racy' or 'extreme' edge of permissible political speech. They are still intended as satire, to stir up public debate and to make a greater political point (albeit in a distasteful way).

Should hate speech laws be more strict, to muzzle Charlie Hebdo? 

I've heard people say that Charlie Hebdo only got away with their cartoons because France is a racist country. I've heard people say that their cartoons weren't even speech. To such people I pose this question: would you outlaw these cartoons in your own country?

It's easy to support free speech when we agree with what is being said. It's harder to support free speech when we oppose the message. And it can be extremely difficult to support free speech when we feel insulted and offended by the speech in question, because it is attacking or mocking something that we hold close to our hearts.

It's understandable that many Catholics have turned their backs on Charlie Hebdo. But before we start calling for stricter hate speech laws, we need to consider the full consequences of what we are asking for. As I discussed in my previous post, the most likely targets of stricter hate speech laws would be Catholics and Evangelical Christians, not Charlie Hebdo and similar publications.

Hate speech laws are controversial because the right "not to be offended" is a very dangerous right. Feeling offended is in the eye of the beholder, and one person's definition of hate speech is another person's definition of free speech. The result is that the values of the predominant culture define the terms - atheist liberalism determines what is too "offensive" and qualifies as hate speech. This is not good news for Catholics, whose views on homosexual behaviour are increasingly perceived as akin to racism.

Should Charlie have censored themselves?

Should Charlie have voluntarily toned down their cartoons? Should they have held back from portraying Mohammad? Should they have stopped themselves from putting out offensive cartoons against Catholics?

As a starting point, I agree with Michael Cook's analysis on MercatorNet, where he writes:
It may be a democratic right to be offensive, but so is respecting your daughter’s right to marry a convicted rapist or her right to live as an anorexic. Is it really the high point of Enlightenment values to defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish cartoons of the Pope sodomising his priests? Surely democracy means more than this.
My Catholic gut screams out: of course Charlie should NOT have printed such offensive cartoons! However, I have to pause myself there. How much of my reaction has to do with the fact that I am Catholic?

Moving on to Islam, the fact is that I support Charlie Hebdo in publishing cartoons of Muhammad. I do believe that these cartoons had political value as speech, despite the fact that they were offensive to Muslims. Just look at their latest cartoon (post-massacre), with Muhammad holding the sign "Je suis Charlie" under the sign "all is forgiven". CLASSIC free speech, excellent biting satire. Irrespective of how offensive this is to Muslims, this cartoon speaks volumes - the old adage applies, a picture is worth 1000 words. Yes, they should be publishing this!

So back to offensive cartoons of the Pope and nuns. To be consistent with my views above regarding Islam, maybe I do need to admit that Charlie Hebdo didn't need to censor themselves with regard to Catholics either. If they really believed that their cartoons were making some leftist political or satirical point, they had a right to print them, irrespective of the sensibilities of Catholics. Just maybe I have to admit that my own religion can be mocked too, even to the point where the cartoons get me very angry.

For those who disagree with the cartoons, rather than calling for self-censorship or outright censorship, perhaps the best response is just to ignore them. The ol' cold shoulder still works just fine. Starve them out by not supporting them financially. This was already happening, really. Not many people supported Charlie Hebdo in France: they had a base of 60,000 subscribers in a country of 66 million. They were virtually unknown and invisible.

Today, thanks to the terrorist massacre, Charlie has been catapulted to the world stage. Their latest issue looks to have a print run of 3 million copies, to be distributed worldwide. Charlie is no longer just a wacky fringe magazine - it has become a global movement. So much for destroying Charlie, you terrorists.

Will I be publishing the cartoons?

Somehow I feel like I should address this, given my pro-Charlie stance. Kudos to Kate of Small Dead Animals for apparently being the only Canadian website to publish the latest Charlie Hebdo cartoon.

As for myself, I will not be publishing it, because I declare myself to be a chicken - you never know what some crazy people will do, and I don't walk around with a security force. So yes, I am picking my battles, and while I support Charlie's right to publish their stuff, this is not high enough on my list to follow suit.

In that connection, I stand convicted by Mark Steyn, who has pointed out that the "I am Charlie" slogan is devoid of meaning since many publications uttering it were too afraid to print the cartoons. How, then, were they really Charlie? Touche. I guess that while I wish to express solidarity with the victims, I am not willing to die at the moment. I have to recognize that the Charlie journalists were far more courageous in that sense. 

Photo: Drriss & Marrionn via photopin cc

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