Recent Charlie Hebdo attack questions limitations on free speech
By Jenny Jiao, ’16 and Maeve O’Brien, ’16
Two men, armed with assault rifles, forced their way into the headquarters of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo and fired 50 shots, killing 12 people and injuring 11 others. They shouted “Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for “God is the greatest.” This attack, made by two Islamic men from an al-Qaeda branch, was a response to several caricatures of the prophet Mohammed that Charlie Hebdo had run in previous issues. The staff has a controversial history with publishing sensitive religious images, even inciting a lawsuit and a firebombing in years prior to the shooting.
Charlie Hebdo usually sold about 60,000 copies an issue. The issue following the attack, however, sold seven million copies globally. The terrorist attack did not stop Charlie Hebdo writers from satirizing. It did not silence the French press, and it did not eliminate the freedom of expression.
However, the shooting prompts global scrutiny of limitations to freedom of speech. Even though Charlie Hebdo wasn’t violating any type of law, many question whether it crossed a social standard to speech, and whether those limits should be respected.
Professor of Law and Judicial Administration at the Ohio State University Christopher Fairman is a national expert in civil procedure, legal ethics and taboo language. Fairman addresses the Charlie Hebdo attack as a deliberate attack on freedom of expression.
“The attack on the French journalists…was certainly motivated to punish the journalists for prior speech and restrict future speech,” Fairman said. “Murder is never a warranted reaction to unpopular speech.”
However, senior Yijia Liang also notes an additional aspect concerning the attack.
“I don’t think you can talk about the Charlie Hebdo attacks without talking about freedom of religion…. Free speech can sometimes conflict with freedom of religion,” Liang said. “Both should be upheld but I don’t think that we should let an act of terrorism scare journalists.”
Agathe Riou, a former French exchange student at UAHS provided insight on the reaction in France.
“When the killers attacked this liberty of [expression], the entire nation felt stabbed in the heart,” Riou said.
Riou and her friends attended various peaceful demonstrations that were held shortly after the attack.
“We were [part of the] 5,000 [people] in my city to peacefully demonstrate in a complete silence for liberty of expression,” Riou said. “A lot of people held a ‘Je Suis Charlie’ sign.”
“Je Suis Charlie” translates to “I am Charlie,” a slogan that has been adopted by supporters of free expression in response to the attack, according to CNN.
Riou also observed the impact of the attack on the French press and their willingness to continue printing what they have always printed.
“We are now few weeks after the massacre and the French press is still the same. Charlie Hebdo is still caricaturing religious characters (including the pope)… and the other newspaper[s] are still covering international events the way they always did,” Riou said. “So even if the impact of the massacre was very strong, I think the press did not change that much.”
While the press did not change, Riou notes that the French people have.
“Bookshops observed an increasing number of [sales in] books that [are] about Islam and tolerance,” she said. “But also, some people curse [at] Muslims in the streets. Some people feel attack[ed] by them even though our government and the national media sent the message to not mistake ‘Muslims’ and ‘terrorists.’”
Riou elaborates and explains that in lieu of the Charlie Hebdo attack, people seem to be more wary of their words.
“I do think people will be more careful about what they say about Islam and Muslims,” Riou said. “Maybe you can count that limiting the liberty of expression but maybe it’s not too bad to think about what you say before you say it.”
The controversy surrounding freedom of speech is not only present on a global scale, but also evident within the Upper Arlington community. Teenagers are using their voices on social media sites such as Twitter to advocate for a certain belief or political stance, often inciting backlash from their peers. Even though these students are operating well within the legal limits of freedom of speech, the negative response indicates that some people think that they are crossing a social limit.
Junior Zane Laws freely exercises his right to free speech, and has repeatedly incurred opposition on Twitter due to his tweets centered around his political and social views. He utilizes this outlet of social media in order to inform others of his beliefs.
“Mainly I just like to voice my opinion and for others to kind of learn about my views or maybe learn something about what I have an opinion on,” Laws said.
He has received numerous replies, texts and direct messages from other students and even strangers. His tweets, which have touched on sensitive topics such as race and religion, have even provoked extreme responses.
“I’ve had a lot of individuals reply back to me and get very angry with me….” Laws said. “I’ve actually received messages over twitter with death threats.”
Laws was speaking freely, and while his opposers thought he was violating social or moral boundaries, receiving death threats are not perceived as a warranted reaction.
Even Laws, who is fearless and forward with what he says on Twitter, is affected by these social parameters and potential consequences of offensive language.
“I’ve just kind of stopped myself because I know the rules here at Upper Arlington and elsewhere that would allow me to get in trouble for what I’ve said over social media.” Laws said.
Laws wasn’t impacted by legal limitations on freedom of expression. Rather, his actions reflected a deeper concern for the social repercussions.
Liang recognizes the social boundaries to freedom of expression, but claims that it is acceptable to cross the line in order to effectively make a statement.
“There are instances when you should cross the line, so in the SC case Tinker v. Des Moines, that was a good case of students crossing the line within their school culture and it showed that kids do have freedom of expression and they were standing up for something they believe in,” Liang said.
While freedom of speech is a pinnacle of this nation, it is a power that should not be abused.
American Government teacher Robert Soccorsi acknowledges the necessary boundaries of free speech.
“With free speech comes responsibility. Just because the government can’t punish us for certain speech doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about the impact of our speech before exclaiming it,” Soccorsi said. “Even legal speech can have serious consequences.”
These consequences can reflect poorly on a certain person or publication. Due to this, many media outlets choose to stay within the boundaries of socially acceptable speech in order to be more profitable. Offensive speech can have negative economic impacts on a publication.
“Publishers do engage in self-censorship, but that is really more of an economic pressure. For example, The New York Times won’t print [certain curse words]. The reason has nothing to do with social, moral or legal reasons; it is because they know that their readers don’t want to read that word over breakfast.” Fairman said. “As a general matter, I don’t think that there are or should be topics that are off-limits to the press.”
In the end, social and legal limitations to free expression exist to regulate discourse throughout the nation; the question is, when should those limitations be respected and when they should be violated?
“To an extent, it’s good to think about what you are going to say because words are extremely powerful,” Liang said. “But to the point where you’re not willing to stand up for something you believe in because of socially defined norms, then we should transcend that norm.”
Soccorsi, commenting on the evolution of legal limits of free speech, agrees that imposing limits is not always the answer.
“The attitude in the United States has been that the best way to combat hateful, objectionable,or erroneous speech is not by throwing people in jail for their words, but by encouraging more and better free speech to counter it,” Soccorsi said. “In a free marketplace of ideas, the hope is that the better ideas will discredit and expose illogical, inaccurate, or ignorant speech.”
Image caption: Thousands of people gather during a demonstration march is Marseille, France, on Saturday, Jan. 10, 2015, in support of the victims of this week’s twin attacks in Paris. Hundreds of extra troops are being deployed around Paris after three days of terror in the French capital killed 17 people and left the nation in shock.
Image courtesy of Launette Florian/MaxPPP/Zuma Press/TNS