What the Charlie Hebdo Murders Ask Us About Free Speech

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Do you believe in free speech? Don’t answer with a simple, thoughtless “yes,” because today, a belief in free speech has become something very meaningful. Today—not for the first time, but perhaps the most dramatic—free speech has become an emblem of something larger, and you either have to believe in it fully, or not at all.


Earlier today, in Paris, at least two masked men, armed with Kalashnikov automatic rifles, staged an attack on the offices of a satirical magazine called Charlie Hebdo. They killed 12—including two police officers—and wounded many more before escaping from the scene in a black Citroen. The men were heard shouting pro-Islamic slogans, which makes sense—Charlie Hebdo had a long history of publishing obscene cartoons insulting many religions, including Islam. Their headquarters had previously been firebombed in 2011 after releasing an issue that was “guest-edited” by the Prophet Muhammad, and the editor, Stephane Charbonnier, was under police protection. Charbonnier died today, and he died because he willfully refused to stop printing controversial satire attacking Islam. He once told Le Monde that he would rather “die standing than to live on my knees,” and today, that’s exactly what happened.


In 2006, French president Jacques Chirac condemned the magazine for its incendiary material after they re-published the Danish cartoons that had inflamed the Muslim world, and Charlie Hebdo had to survive a lawsuit alleging that their content was racist. Gawker and The Daily Beast have the best run-downs of the controversial content the magazine has run in the last decade. As you’ll see from those sources, the cartoons were very often crass, obscene, and deliberately inflammatory. Sometimes, they weren’t very funny. As satire went, this wasn’t exactly Swift.

The whole thing could be brushed off as cheap humor, except for the fact that each time they published an anti-Islamic cartoon, the whole editorial staff were quite literally risking their lives. That changed the tone—this more than just immature needling and bizarre sexual humor. This was an open challenge to anyone who didn’t want Charlie Hebdo to exercise its free speech and free press rights, and an affirmation that those rights existed. It sounds funny to say, since the content was so sophomoric, but it took a huge amount of courage to keep up the onslaught. There were only two ways for the whole thing to end—either they quit, or they died. And in act of unbelievable defiance, Charlie Hebdo refused to quit.


By their refusal, they forced a question on their readers in France, and today, that same question is foisted on those of us who had never heard of Charlie Hebdo before the shootings. Do we really—and I mean really—believe in free speech?

Do we believe in free speech that offends us? Do we believe in free speech whose value is determined by its audience, rather than a government or a group of terrorists? Do we believe in free speech that makes us extremely uncomfortable, and that espouses hatred simply for the sake of it?

In a strange way, it’s almost like the staff of Charlie Hebdo sacrificed itself to point out what free speech actually means, and where its enemies reside. I have no idea if their intent was anything that noble, but at the same time, they knew the risks and pressed on when the easy thing—the thing that most of us would choose, no matter how iconoclastic we feel—would be to retreat. Instead, they committed themselves to demonstrating the absurd ends of extreme thinking, despite the fact that they were setting themselves up as victims.

It’s easy to be a free speech advocate when it means that underrepresented groups are gaining a voice, or corruption at high levels is being uncovered, or tyrants are being exposed. Cases like Charlie Hebdo are trickier, and therefore more critical to the ideology—if we’re going to accept a free press, we have to accept it without reservation.

And if we do accept it—if we believe in free speech—then that means treating it like an important value, and defending it even when we don’t agree with the message. It means that we only fight free speech with more free speech of our own, and that we trust the marketplace to dictate which ideas prosper and which ones die. And it means being outraged that 12 people can be murdered because someone didn’t like a cartoon.

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