The power and the responsibility of free speech





By Hunter Johnson 




Crowds gathered to honor the 12 staff members of Charlie Hebdo killed in a terrorist attack. Free speech supporters adopted the phrase “Je suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie,” to rally.  -Photo courtesy of
Crowds gathered to honor the 12 staff members of Charlie Hebdo killed in a terrorist attack. Free speech supporters adopted the phrase “Je suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie,” to rally.
-Photo courtesy of

It doesn’t take much to spark fury in many cultures today.  All too often, anger arises over the most minuscule of actions – from Hello Kitty not being a real kitty, to Shailene Woodley not being a feminist, to the flaws in Apple products.  From time to time, however, there is an event that is worthy of the furious response it triggered.

The attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris was such an event.  Islamic extremists, offended over the magazine’s publication of cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad, stormed Hebdo’s headquarters and killed 12 staff members in cold blood.  The terrorists were killed two days later, but not before millions throughout the world rallied around the concept of free speech with the words “Je suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie.”

There are few things in the civilized world more powerful and crucial than free speech.  The freedom of speech is the very fabric of a free society; how could someone truly be free if there are laws regulating what he could say publicly? More importantly, freedom of speech means the freedom to share ideas, beliefs and news with anyone and everyone — a task that would be impossible without a free and functioning media.

It is undeniable that the freedom of the press to report news without government censorship is necessary for an open, free society.  We have all heard of what has occurred in nations that repress free expression. We know what the costs of state-run media can be.

People within the media and outside it often forget that free speech is a right that comes with its own complications.  Just because we can say anything, does that mean we should?

In the case of Charlie Hebdo, the provocative cartoons are not merely humorous but also offensive.  It should not be surprising that they infuriated Muslims.  To give some perspective, the magazine has been known to mock many faiths, including the Catholic Church.  One cover features a cartoon of Pope Benedict XVI holding a condom in place of a communion Host.

Gérard Biard, the chief editor of Hebdo, has stood by the magazine’s publication of such material. In an interview with NBC, Biard stated that the cartoons help ensure the freedom of religion by declaring, “God must not be a political or public figure.  He must be a private figure.”

On the other hand, Pope Francis said in response to the Paris attacks that “one cannot kill in the name of God,” adding that in freedom of expression, “there are limits…one cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith.”

So, were the cartoons really defending the freedom of religion, or did they cross the line? As in so many divisive issues, the real truth is not defined in black and white terms.  Many people take the right of free speech for granted, and subsequently abuse it.  There is nothing wrong with satire, but that does not mean mockery is perfectly acceptable in every situation.

Sure, by showing that no religion is untouchable, the cartoons might defend religious freedom in some way.  They could even be interpreted as a message to terrorists that says, “We know you might kill us for this, but we are not afraid.” Yet, are such cartoons the only way to get these messages across?

There have been many circumstances in which free speech has been used as a pretext to mock others — for example, neo-Nazis who belittle Jews and African-Americans. Even mockery for pure entertainment can have detrimental effects on people who have done no wrong. As a result, animosity is created that may lead to serious repercussions for both sides.

At the same time, free speech is a crucial part of our society; in instances where a group is unjustly mocked or offended, that group should be prepared to respond with civility.  Responding with violence or hateful behavior typically does not help the argument of the offended — look at the Hebdo attacks, for example. The extremists’ actions did nothing to further respect for their style of Islam, but instead furthered negative stereotypes of all Muslims.

What can the students and staff of a small Texas university take from a tragedy in the streets of Paris? We should keep in mind that tolerance and respect are two-way streets, and that any action that we take will have some sort of effect on others or ourselves.  Yes, storming a newsroom with automatic weapons is deplorable and irrational, but mocking other people’s faiths is not justifiable, either.

Free speech is a right too powerful to be toyed with.  It is something to be used wisely.  In the end, the pen can be just as harmful as the gun.


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