Offender and offended: both deserve free speech

Courtesy of redaccion.lamula.pe

Pour être ou ne pas être Charlie (to be or not to be Charlie)?

Suppose I wrote an article insulting your religion, your mother and everything you hold near and dear to your heart.

Do you write a letter to the editor? Do you stage a protest?

Do you pick up a gun?

Islamist radicals attacked Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine known for its cartoons mocking Muhammad on Jan. 7.

In the outpouring of sympathy that came afterwards, people divided into two camps. Some supported for the magazine, saying “Je suis Charlie” (French for “I am Charlie”), while others expressed sympathy but avoided condoning the publication.

Though we may not support some of the offensive things Charlie Hebdo has published, we are still Charlie. We must stand for freedom of expression, even though that includes offensive speech.

“Killing journalists is a form of terrorism that (destroys) human rights and freedom of speech, and I think a journalist being murdered in his own office this way in a country such as France is unacceptable, even if his cartoons may seem offensive to some people,” said Théophile Gatté, a resident of France, via email.

After the attack, #JeSuisCharlie became one of the most popular Twitter hashtags with almost 6,500 tweets per minute at its height. During demonstrations after the attack, thousands of people held up “Je suis Charlie” signs in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. People created T-shirts, buttons and even iPhone apps that allowed people to express their support.

But other people had reservations. No high-level American officials joined the more than 40 world leaders who helped lead demonstrations after the attack. Articles such as “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo” graced the opinion pages of The New York Times and others.

Some avoided joining the chorus because of the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo had published, especially those of Muhammad that many Muslims found blasphemous.

“If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” said Pope Francis to reporters during a news conference after the attacks. “You cannot insult the faith of others.”

The divide has led to debate worldwide.

“This attack has created a union of the French people, and of the world, for freedom of speech, yet it has also divided our nation,” said Daphné Gatté, a resident of France, in an email. “Some have started speaking nonsense about (the attacker’s) religion, while others support the attackers saying Charlie Hebdo ‘deserved this.’”

Some of the things Charlie Hebdo has published in the past are downright tasteless at best. Organizations such as CNN, The Telegraph and The Daily News felt compelled to blur or crop out cartoons from photos of Charlie Hebdo. Past covers of the magazine include Muhammad telling readers “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing!” and God, Jesus and a symbol for the Holy Spirit having anal sex.

Freedom of expression is not the same thing as freedom of good expression. Freedom of expression means the ability to say whatever a person wants, not what somebody else thinks they should be able to say.

There are limits on freedom of expression when it becomes necessary to protect public welfare. However, Charlie Hebdo never wrote or drew anything in this category. No one could have reasonably expected the attack as a consequence of their cartoons.

But there’s a flip side to this as well.

“If, in fact, we defend the legal right of a person to insult another’s religion, we’re equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults and stand shoulder to shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities, who were targets of such attacks,” said President Barack Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 5.

Free speech self-regulates. Other people can speak out against those who say offensive things. The attackers should not have taken up a gun. They should have taken up a pen.

France must not only protect the rights of Charlie Hebdo but also of their opponents. Worrisomely, it seems France forgot that in the aftermath of the attack when they arrested 54 people for hate speech and statements glorifying terrorism.

We are not Charlie because we support offensive speech. We are Charlie because we support the right to free speech, by both the offender and the offended.