Free speech: where do we draw the line?

France has a history of terrorist attacks, and this past October, two more terror attacks occurred in France. On Oct. 16, a teacher was beheaded in Paris, and on Oct. 29, three people were fatally stabbed in a church in Nice. Following these instances, on Nov. 2 in Vienna, there was an attack that resulted in four killed, another 23 wounded. The motives seem to be related to publications from a controversial French magazine.  

“Charlie Hebdo, a French satire magazine has published cartoons satirizing elements of the Islamic religion,” said history teacher Susan Clark. “The first incident of extremists attacking the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 2015 brought this to light and it seems as though the issue is ramping back up.”

Macron, the president of France, criticized the attacks, expressed his support for Charlie Hebdo’s publications and proposed legislation with the goal of “[building] an Islam in France that can be compatible with the Enlightenment.” This prompted criticism from Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, who tweeted that Macron was “[encouraging] Islamophobia by attacking Islam rather than the terrorists.” 

Although some have argued in support of Charlie Hebdo, citing their right to free speech, others have condemned the terror attacks while expressing disgust in regards to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and the Islamophobia that they say they represent. 

Adel Salman, Vice President of the Islamic Council of Victoria, expressed sorrow in terms of the recent killings, but added how “Muslims are also upset when any of the Prophets and Messengers of God — Abraham, Noah, Moses, Jesus, etc — are demeaned because we view them as the best examples of humanity, selected by God to perform a sacred duty.”

These recent events have sparked controversy over the line between freedom of speech and hate speech. 

“France already has a more strict law defining hate speech especially in publication and use by the press,” continued Clark. “The controversy is where is the line and the issue is the line is ambiguous at best. Charlie Hebdo flirts with that line often.”

This controversy is present across continental borders, and America is not exempt from it. 

“For Americans, the freedom of speech is something that we hold dear and defend to the utmost,” added Clark. “But as US courts have defined in the last century, not all speech (and that includes expression of cartoons, objects, etc) is absolute.”

Masuk students learn about the value of free speech in our history classrooms, but we have also learned that speech that can directly incite harm is not protected. Our civil liberties are important, so our actions and words cannot infringe upon the civil liberties of others.  

There are complex arguments to be made in terms of where the line should be drawn, but one thing seems certain: a less ambiguous line would be valuable for the safety of our future. 

“I believe that many more countries may be forced to look at what hate speech is and perhaps begin to define it legally,” finished Clark.

Image credit: Google
Building of the controversial French publication, Charlie Hebdo.

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