On January 7, 2015, two gunmen attacked the Paris headquarters of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and killed twelve people. The attacks are presumed to be in response to several controversial cartoons that the magazine published depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The events have ignited a global debate on the topic of freedom of speech, explored in Choices’ free online lesson, The Struggle to Define Free Speech: From Skokie to Paris.
Days after the attack, millions of people marched in rallies across France. Many carried posters and banners inscribed with the phrase “Je suis Charlie” (French for “I am Charlie”) to show solidarity with the magazine. Sales of Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance have skyrocketed in recent weeks in France, and much of the nation’s population has rallied around his, and their own, staunch belief in freedom of thought and condemnation of censorship.
Yet the magazine has also drawn criticism from individuals and leaders around the world who contend that the cartoons went too far. Critics point to the magazine’s long history of publishing content that, in their opinion, stokes Islamophobia and racism. They question why cartoonists have used their pens to further fracture a country and world already fraught with tension and intolerance.
Turkey, Morocco, and other countries have banned the distribution of Charlie Hebdo. Violent demonstrations have broken out in several places, including Pakistan, where parliament has even passed resolutions condemning the publication, stating that, “This is an attempt to divide peoples and civilisations. There is a need to promote harmony among people and communities instead of reinforcing stereotypes and making people alienated in their own countries.” Pope Francis has chimed in, declaring that insults against the faith of others are beyond the limits of acceptable free speech.
Still others, including many who disapprove of the content of the cartoons, caution against government interference in the free flow of ideas. They stand by the belief that the irreverence of cartoonists, journalists, and artists is a transformative and essential force in a healthy society. Teju Cole writes, “[I]t is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech. It is possible to approve of sacrilege without endorsing racism. And it is possible to consider Islamophobia immoral without wishing it illegal. Moments of grief neither rob us of our complexity nor absolve us of the responsibility of making distinctions.”
“But drawing the line between speech that is disgusting and speech that is dangerous is inherently difficult and risky,” states a recent New York Times editorial. France has been quick to arrest and prosecute those who have uttered words of support for the attacks, even when defendants have not threatened violence. Some have criticized French authorities for having a double standard when it comes to expression.
Despite many important distinctions, much of the current discourse on France echoes a debate that shook the United States almost forty years ago—In 1977, a Neo-Nazi group proposed marching through the streets of Skokie, Illinois, a small city that was home to many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. The ACLU defended the Nazi’s right to march, the Anti-Defamation League sued in an attempt to prevent it, and people throughout the United States wrestled with the question of how to interpret the First Amendment.
Are there limits to freedom of expression? What should they be? And what can we gather from the cases of Skokie and Paris to help us decide? Challenge your students to explore these questions with the Teaching with the News lesson, The Struggle to Define Free Speech: From Skokie to Paris.
Photos by photograpix (CC BY 2.0) and Tim (CC BY-SA 2.0).