Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Charlie Hebdo and Free Expression


Worldwide responses to the January 7 massacre at the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo have raised some important questions about the nature and limits of free expression.

People seem to fall into three main camps on this issue:

  • Charlie Hebdo’s portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad were offensive, vicious, and tasteless, and have breached the barrier of what should constitute free speech or expression. By defiling a set of beliefs and a figure that is sacred to a group of people, Charlie Hebdo has undermined their dignity, and this should not be legally allowed in society.
  • While Charlie Hebdo’s portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad were offensive, vicious, and tasteless, they should still be legally protected speech, as free expression is a vital institution of modern society. However, publications or statements ridiculing people’s religious beliefs or identity should be avoided.
  • Charlie Hebdo’s portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad, while crude, are perfectly acceptable. There is no belief or topic so sacred or so important that it should be immune from mockery or offense, and even the most vulgar satire can play an important role in enlightening the population.

The question that divides camps 1 and 2 is whether there exist notions so objectively irresponsible and offensive that they should be illegal, and if so, do Charlie Hebdo’s portrayals of the Prophet meet this criteria.

When interviewed by the Washington Post about Charlie Hebdo, French Muslim Nasser Lajili stated: “I want to make clear that I completely condemn the attack on Charlie Hebdo. But I think freedom of speech needs to stop when it harms the dignity of someone else. The prophet for us is sacred.” Sporting an opinion shared by millions of Muslims worldwide, Mr. Lajili claims that the Prophet Muhammad and the core tenets of Islam are subjects so sacred and meaningful for people that they should be protected from any sort of verbal or written attack.

In line with this opinion, hundreds of thousands of Muslims gathered in Chechnya to protest Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov declared to the crowd, “If needed, we are ready to die to stop anyone who thinks that you can irresponsibly defile the name of the Prophet.” In the heavily Muslim Niger, rioters have set ablaze dozens of churches and attacked French-linked businesses in protest of the Hebdo cartoons, killing at least ten people. Over 5000 gathered in Lahore, Pakistan, holding up such signs as: “This is not freedom of expression, it is open aggression against Islam.” Pakistan’s president called for Charlie Hebdo to issue an apology for “insulting the faith of others.”

It seems that many Muslims around the world do not share the same conception of free expression held by Europeans and, particularly, Americans. Most conservative Muslims would fall into the aforementioned “camp 1,” and would argue that vicious attacks on religion should be banned in a society, and that the Prophet Muhammad should never be depicted.

There have even been calls to ban such expression closer to home. Pope Francis made comments implying limits to freedom of speech when it comes to religion: “You cannot insult the faith of others.” And USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham argued that since the Charlie Hebdo cartoons “incite violence” and “pose a clear and present danger,” they should not be protected by free speech.

These views are dangerous, much more so than any cartoon could ever be. Western societies need to stand strong in their promotion of freedom of expression.

In the eyes of a secular state, there is no notion so sacred that it deserves protection from attacks or offense. Conceptions of what is good and what is offensive have all proven to be subjective based on time, place, and individual, and such statutes are always determined by the will of those in power. It is best to legally allow for all voices, no matter how abhorrent or distasteful. In addition to this subjectivity argument, there is also the idea that we as a society are made stronger when challenged with controversial ideas. Rather than litigating a radical, offensive voice, it is better to criticize the belief behind the voice.

This leads to me to the final part of this article – distinguishing camps 2 and 3. Like camp 1 adherents, those in camp 2 would argue that, while protected by free speech, Charlie Hebdo’s portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad displayed a lack of responsibility, taste, and sensitivity to the views of a population. Those in camp 2 question the editorial judgment behind publishing the cartoons. These are views held by many on the American and European Left.

According to a poll conducted by a French weekly newspaper, over 40% of French people believe Charlie Hebdo should not publish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad because Muslims find the images offensive. Speaking out in 2012 on Charlie Hebdo’s blasphemous cartoons, White House spokesman Jay Carney, representing the official position of the Obama administration, stated: “We don’t question the right of something like this to be published; we just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it.” Time magazine’s Paris bureau chief Bruce Crumley wrote, “It’s obvious free societies cannot simply give in to hysterical demands made by members of any beyond-the-pale group … but it’s just as evident members of those same free societies have to exercise a minimum of intelligence, calculation, civility, and decency in practicing their rights and liberties.” Crumley, in essence, lambasts the decision to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons because he believes the magazine is neglecting certain responsibilities that accompany the exercise of free speech.

But, again, the question of subjectivity comes into play. While notions of tolerance, civility, judgment, and responsibility might thwart tasteless, offensive expression, wouldn’t they also drown out radical voices making important points that society deems offensive or impolite?

A columnist at The New Republic has argued that you don’t have to defend acts of blasphemy to defend the right to blaspheme. Writing for Slate, Jordan Weissmann states, “Free speech allows us to say hateful, idiotic things without being punished by the government. But embracing that right means that we need to acknowledge when work is hateful or idiotic, and can’t be defended on its own terms.” This rings closer to the truth.

As a huge advocate of the marketplace of ideas, political incorrectness, and trenchant satire, I admit to falling into camp 3. I do think there is great positive value in challenging people’s deepest beliefs and major societal institutions, and I do not think there will ever be or should be an objective standard for polite, appropriate, inoffensive speech.

However, I empathize with the Slate and New Republic writers, who might not agree with me that “hateful, idiotic” pieces should be published, but who would agree that, if published, these pieces should be acknowledged as “hateful” and “idiotic” by other journalists and prominent figures in society who share that opinion. Regarding the most virulent examples of free speech or expression (e.g. denying the Holocaust, KKK rhetoric) and in the Charlie Hebdo case, society is better off having these sentiments expressed and then criticized in the public sphere than letting them fester inside the minds of radicals.

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Charlie Hebdo and Free Expression