Êtes-vous Charlie? Free Speech and Terror Considered

“Je suis Charlie” was a common reference point at the Golden Globe awards ceremony in Hollywood the other night - award winners referenced France and the recent terrorist attack in Paris numerous times in speeches. The phrase, “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) has become a significant rallying cry and cry of solidarity across the internet and, by consequence, across many nations. Today I want to think together about what the phrase means and symbolizes, and what its implications are for justice, and for hope.

The story of “Je suis Charlie” arises in the wake of the terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Several of the writers for the magazine were killed in the attack in Paris earlier this month, with other attacks on a kosher store and a policewoman making headlines and prompting massive rallies against terrorism throughout France. You can read a bit more about the general timeline and nature of the events in this CNN piece. Thus far, only one suspect remains at large.

The rally drew more than 3 million people to Paris - including 40 world leaders - and the focus, according to the BBC, was on freedom - “Marchers chanted ‘liberté’ … and ‘Charlie,’ in reference to the Charlie Hebdo magazine.” Liberté, or freedom, is a powerful historical rallying cry for France, whose motto - Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité - harkens back to the French Revolution and several revolutions after it. 

But what is freedom? And particularly, what is freedom of speech?

The New York Times published an important story raising just this question. According to the story, soon after the slogan “Je suis Charlie” became widespread, a counter-slogan appeared. “Soon, though, came a riposte: "Je ne suis pas Charlie" — I am not Charlie — as the tragedy triggered a debate about free speech and its limits, and whether the right to offend should always be used.” The magazine in question published, after all, offensive cartoons on a wide variety of topics, from the religious to the political. “Charlie Hebdo had published crude, rude cartoons that mocked everyone from politicians to the Pope to the Prophet Muhammad. It saw its mission as challenging taboos and sacred cows.”

The reality of weighing potential danger and free expression sits at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

A significant question for the speech community - other magazines, newspapers and media outlets worldwide - has been whether to reprint the cartoons from the magazine or not. Some argue it is a show of solidarity - for, according to the Times, “The group Index on Censorship ran a selection of Charlie Hebdo cartoons online and called on other publications and websites to follow suit, ‘to show that fear should not be allowed to stifle free expression.’” Others refused on grounds that the cartoons verged on hate speech or violated editorial policies about willfully offensive content. And, according to the Huffington Post, a German newspaper was attacked for reprinting some of the cartoons. The reality of weighing potential danger and free expression sits at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

Does this kind of speech have limits? That’s the powerful question lurking under the horror and outrage of the attacks themselves. While acts of terror are never justifiable, the concern and the after-debate becomes, What are we marching in solidarity with? Speech of any kind? Of all kinds? Of only some kinds?

And indeed, this follows the end-of-year story about Sony Pictures The Interview and decisions not to screen the movie in any theaters, prompting many to raise the question again of censorship, free expression, and danger.

Here is the challenge: the story cannot be only about the particulars of Charlie Hebdo’s content and whether that kind of speech or those particular cartoons should be protected as speech. Necessarily, rendering judgment on a particular kind of speech will set up a precedent about other kinds of speech. So if free speech is limited, we must have a good reason how we draw those boundaries. Is it about levels of offense? Where is the line between “hateful” and “provocative”? Is it about openness to risk?

What does pluralism mean in the context of free speech? For a public square to function well - indeed, to function at all - we must be willing to protect all kinds of speech because to eliminate one of the basis of offense or danger or risk would be to endanger all. The nature of a public square is to welcome a plurality of perspectives, which necessitates even those views that carry potential risks of offending others.

Think of the other hashtag - “JeSuisAhmed” - that has made its way around the Internet in close proximity to Je suis Charlie. Ahmed Merabet was a police officer killed in the line of duty during the Charlie Hebdo attack. According to the Huffington Post, activist Dyab Abou Jahjah tweeted this: “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so. #JesuisAhmed.” The protection of free speech, especially controversial speech, is essential to the good functioning of a community. It is essential, therefore, to justice.

We can carry on a conversation about free speech and all its related issues: the changing context of the Internet, the nature of global communications, offensive versus provocative speech. But we can, and we must, preserve the nature of the public square, where we recognize and participate in the protection of all kinds of speech - even speech that carries risk.

-Hilary Yancey is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Baylor University, where she hopes to focus her studies in bioethics and the philosophy of the human person. You can find Hilary writing about everyday life and faith at her blog:http://thewildlove.wordpress.com chatting on Twitter and Instagram at @hilaryyancey.