Charlie Hebdo is, on a more polite day, a controversial magazine. On its worst day, the caricatures tend to be downright racist and offensive, especially towards Islamic culture. However, the January massacre of the Charlie Hebdo staffers still bother me.
As a journalist, my future depends on maintaining the freedom of speech and being allowed to safely write about people and issues that not everyone wants to talk about. The question is this: Should we be willing to defend the right of free speech when the speaker is saying something we might find offensive?
My answer, resolutely, is yes.
This is not the first time Charlie Hebdo experienced violence as a result of their content. According to CNN, in 2011 the magazine’s headquarters was firebombed for depicting the Prophet Mohammed on their cover. They have also received numerous death threats from Muslim extremists since 2006.
Journalists have a responsibility to the public. Journalism was born to keep citizens informed about their community, government and world so that they may be able to make informed decisions. It was not born to mass produce objectionable cartoons and promote xenophobic, narrow-minded views.
However, hate speech, no matter how racist, sexist or dangerous, is still speech. We, unfortunately, have to allow Ku Klux Klan members to protest in the streets as long as they are not causing harm or inciting violence. It is still our duty as human beings to preserve the right to free speech, including hate speech, even when we do not agree with what is being said.
It would be impossible to predict what someone’s reaction may be to every story that gets published somewhere. We should remain mindful of our words and respectful of others even when we are criticizing them. Social responsibility sometimes transcends our legal right to do something.
In March 2004, France outlawed any clothing or symbols in public schools that exhibit “conspicuously a religious affiliation.” This law includes headscarves. While it is intended for all types of religious symbols, it hits home with the Muslim immigrants who have faced discrimination in France for a long time, especially regarding the hijab. It doesn’t take much to understand how and why the Islamic community may feel persecuted in this country and many others.
Certain publications have refused to print Charlie Hebdo’s offensive Mohammed cartoons when reporting on the massacre in Paris. NPR was one of those news organizations. Mark Memmott, the company’s standards and practices editor, said the attack was “thought to have been the work of killers who believe cartoons can be so offensive that they justified the murder of 12 people.”
These organizations have stated that while they believe no one deserves to die for being rude or offensive, the cartoons violated their own ethical and moral codes for what they publish in their paper.
But how easy it is to anger the wrong person with words they may not like. We can’t always play it on the safe side and be so politically correct that there isn’t one person who will write a negative comment. In a free society, we have to tolerate other, sometimes unfavorable, opinions if we want to stay a free society.
If hate speech fell outside of the realm of protected speech, political opportunists could easily expand the definition of hate speech to include anything that differs from their ideology. The question should never be: do I agree with this message? In the end we should always defend the right to speak your message. Our society is truly dangerous when we lose the freedom to criticize it.