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Charlie Hebdo editorial: Conflating the message that comes with free speech

Charlie Guese

Charlie Hebdo has developed a reputation in France for publishing eye-grabbing cartoons. (Charlie Hebdo)

Charlie Hebdo has developed a reputation in France for publishing eye-grabbing cartoons. (Charlie Hebdo)

Originally published in The Collegian

Millions in Paris and around the world this week are marching in solidarity with the victims of the Islamist extremist attacks in Paris surrounding the satirical Charlie Hebdo newsmagazine. The two gunmen killed 12 people on Wednesday, including several high profile Charlie Hebdo staff. The attacks are deplorable and tragic in painting a dark cloud over France.

Those marching have come to the defense of Charlie Hebdo, preaching the virtues of free speech in an open society. These people are absolutely right — supporting press freedom and others’ rights to express themselves are noble causes and essential to a healthy society. It’s also important to recognize the nuances between a message and the freedom that is used to communicate it. Through discussion of the Charlie Hebdo attack, many critics have conflated Charlie Hebdo’s freedom of speech with rather tasteless and anti-Islamic messages draped on its front pages, even celebrating the criticism of Islam.

This is problematic in that anti-Islamic rhetoric only continues to fuel the work of radicals, pushing all of us to greater and greater extremes. “Vengeance and hatred directed at Muslims as a whole serves Islamic fundamentalists well,” wrote Owen Jones in the Guardian. “They want Muslims to feel hated, targeted and discriminated against, because it increases the potential well of support for their cause.”

Muslims are an already oppressed and targeted minority in France, and it’s a troubling precedent to blend free speech championing while dismissing the many crass attacks against Muslims throughout Western media. As crowds are marching in support of the freedom of speech, thousands were also marching in Berlin at an anti-Muslim march on Monday. Would we as Americans march in solidarity of free speech if it were a cartoon of the Holocaust or the World Trade Center on 9/11? Is crude satire only acceptable if you’re not personally offended?

Lastly, ever since the First Republic in 1791, France has long held a tradition of valuing liberty and free speech, so it’s not so much of a surprise to see the French marching in record numbers on Sunday. Though I wonder about those who are championing press freedom today on this side of the Atlantic and where they were as the U.S. government was condemning whistleblower Edward Snowden and the journalists who published his documents, when Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison. While the French public was rightfully critical of the revelation of the many NSA spying programs, the American public and U.S. media were not filled with the same bravado and fearlessness then as they are today.

As long as free societies continue to exist, the media and the public will never cease grappling over how far freedom of speech can go or what messages are or aren’t objectionable.