Charlie Hebdo Offers Valuable Lesson in Free Speech

By Sam Fraser, Managing Editor-in-Chief


When heavily armed gunmen stormed the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo last month, killing twelve people, both newspaper staff and police, France, along with the international community was stunned.

At first, the French people, world leaders and internet users everywhere seemed united, joining together behind the slogan and Twitter hashtag “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie). Millions gathered in Paris on the Sunday after the attack, marching in solidarity with the victims and in support of free expression. Over 40 world leaders joined in the march, including leaders of France, Britain, Germany, Israel, Turkey and many more.

Unfortunately these may not be the grand gestures they appear to be.

While it may sound counterintuitive, it is easy to stand up for freedom of expression in the face of terrorists. As a western politician, demonstrating your opposition to terrorism is not brave. It is simply natural, and politically expedient. And unfortunately, while clearly aligning themselves against the terrorists in France and claiming to stand on the side of free expression, many of these leaders are far too slow to defend free speech day to day in their own nations.

For the rest of us, it is easy to align ourselves with free speech in an abstract sense. We want to declare solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, or with Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger who has been sentenced to receive 1,000 lashes for starting a liberal political discussion website. However, living in America, or in most Western countries, very few of us will ever have to worry about being killed or facing any kind of punishment for what we say.

As we declare our unequivocal support for free speech overseas, or especially in the loosely-described Muslim world, where in many nations “blasphemy” is punishable by corporal or capital punishment, it has become increasingly acceptable at home to let free expression go by the wayside in favor of political correctness.

Political correctness is acceptable to a point. Society should not condone pointless bigotry, and people like Donald Sterling who express hateful views should be held accountable, not in court or by the government, but informally as Sterling was.

Political correctness becomes a problem, however, once it begins to shut down free discourse and obscure reality.

Thanks in part to social media this is happening more than ever. Just as people took to Twitter and Facebook to stand for free speech following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, they take to these same platforms to crush the exact kind of expression that defined Charlie Hebdo.

For decades, the legal limit to free speech has been defined by doctrines like “fighting words” and “incitement of imminent lawless action.” However, many today have decided that the threshold for suppressing speech is much lower. These people, who are increasingly concentrated among the progressive left, have effectively made the decision that free speech does not truly protect things that are offensive to any group of people.

Dubbed “The But Brigade” by British author Salman Rushdie–who himself was subjected to a fatwa, an assassination order from the Irani government following his publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988–this group offers qualified support for free speech, declaring “I believe in free speech, but….” This is usually followed by “not if it offends people” or “you can’t insult people’s religion.”

This attitude represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what free speech is. Why do we have constitutionally protected free speech? It is certainly not to protect statements or opinions that no one objects to. The very reason we have the 1st Amendment is to protect speech that any party, no matter who that is, would rather not be said at all.

This is the fundamental fact that the so-called progressives who so stringently enforce political correctness fail to understand. The 1st Amendment does not come with qualifications.

Nowhere is this failure more apparent than on our nation’s college campuses.

I wrote a column last spring about a series of commencement speakers who were disinvited after small student groups objected to these speakers comments and views. One such speaker was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who criticizes the treatment of women under Fundamentalist Islam. In this column I addressed the fact that I would be going to college in little over a year, and said “I can only hope that my destination will be a place where the value of free and open discourse has not been lost.”

My hope for this is waning. Let me be clear: our institutions of higher education, with notable exceptions, are not the bastions of free discourse they should be, or once were. Rather than existing as pockets of free thought, they exist as pockets of restricted expression and enforced political correctness.

Colleges and universities have increasingly shown themselves to be unwilling to protect free expression in the face of PC bullying. Following the Ferguson incidents and ensuing controversy, the President of Smith College was forced to apologize for writing that “All lives matter.” A UCLA professor was compelled to apologize for posing a question to his law students about whether a Ferguson protester’s yelling of “burn this bitch down” after which riots ensued, legally constituted incitement.

At UC Berkeley, another student group tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to prevent comedian Bill Maher from delivering the December commencement address due to his criticism of certain practices of Islam, and their broad-based support in many Muslim countries.

Don’t get me wrong, these are touchy subjects. Race issues and Islamophobia are massive problems that must be addressed. However, to address these issues we need to discuss them, and if we allow ourselves to be forced to walk on eggshells while doing so we do ourselves a great disservice.

So yes, while few of us will ever have to fear death for making a statement or drawing a picture, we can all learn a lesson from Charlie Hebdo. If you are a person who thinks critically, and has views of any significance, there will be people who object to those views. They may want to stop you from expressing them. They may try very hard to do so. But you cannot let them. In that sense, we are all Charlie.

Opinion stories reflect the views of the writer and are independent of the Acalanes Blueprint and the school itself. Questions? Comments? Feel free to contact us at 

2 Replies to “Charlie Hebdo Offers Valuable Lesson in Free Speech”

  1. Well done, Sam. You captured beautifully how how “free speech” is an important Constitutional Right, as long as it does not cause harm to others: For example, yelling, “Fire” in a crowded movie theater.

    Currently, there is another heated debate regarding “Freedom of Religion” and “Discrimination” based on those religious beliefs. For example, should a bakery be able to refuse making a wedding cake for a same-sex couple if their Religion preaches against such a union? I would value your opinion on this subject in the form of another superb article. Thank you for being engaged and trying to make this a better World.

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