Crossing the Line

DeWayne Wickham believes that the French magazine Charlie Hebdo has gone too far. They have crossed the line between free speech and toxic talk and thus is responsible for much of the violence committed by Muslims in France and around the world. He writes in USA Today;

Charlie Hebdo has gone too far.

In its first publication following the Jan. 7 attack on its Paris office, in which two Muslim gunmen massacred 12 people, the once little-known French satirical news weekly crossed the line that separates free speech from toxic talk.

Charlie Hebdo‘s latest depiction of the prophet Mohammed — a repeat of the very action that is thought to have sparked the murderous attack on its office — predictably has given rise to widespread violence in nations with large Muslim populations. Its irreverence of Mohammed once moved the French tabloid to portray him naked in a pornographic pose. In another caricature, it showed Mohammed being beheaded by a member of the Islamic State.

While free speech is one of democracy’s most important pillars, it has its limits. H.L. Mencken, the fabled columnist who described himself as “an extreme libertarian,” said that he believed in free speech“up to the last limits of the endurable.”

French President Francois Hollande, apparently, disagrees. He defendsCharlie Hebdo‘s latest depiction of Mohammed by saying that protesters in other countries don’t understand France’s embrace of free speech.

But even as Hollande defends Charlie Hebdo‘s right to publish images of Mohammed that many Muslims consider sacrilegious and hateful, his government has imprisoned dozens of people who have condemned the magazine with talk the French won’t tolerate. Those arrested are accused of speaking in support of the attack on the magazine, and a separate assault on a kosher store in Paris by a lone Muslim gunman with links to the men who attacked Charlie Hebdo.

While the Obama administration condemned these deadly attacks, it probably wasn’t surprised. Two years ago, then-press secretary Jay Carney questioned the judgment ofCharlie Hebdo‘s editors when they published an offensive depiction of Mohammed. That came a year after the newspaper’s office was firebombed when it tauntingly named Mohammed its guest editor. That portrayal came with a caption that read: “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing.”

 

In 1919, the Supreme Court ruled speech that presents a “clear and present danger” is not protected by the First Amendment. Crying “fire” in a quiet, uninhabited place is one thing, the court said. But “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”

Twenty-two years later, the Supreme Court ruled that forms of expression that “inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” are fighting words that are not protected by the First Amendment.

If Charlie Hebdo‘s irreverent portrayal of Mohammed before the Jan. 7 attack wasn’t thought to constitute fighting words, or a clear and present danger, there should be no doubt now that the newspaper’s continued mocking of the Islamic prophet incites violence. And it pushes Charlie Hebdo‘s free speech claim beyond the limits of the endurable.

The principle that Mr. Wickham seems to be enunciating seems to be that freedom of speech is all very well unless someone is upset by what is being spoken or written, in which case, that speech should be suppressed. I wonder if he has really thought through the implications of this principle. If the idea that only speech that offends no one should be permitted is applied even-handedly, than only the blandest sort of platitudes can be allowed, given that there are so many people offended by seemingly innocent expressions. Of course, this principle of forbidding “toxic talk” cannot be even-handedly applied even with the best efforts. In practice, it will be those quick to use force, either violent or otherwise whose feelings will be spared. A pornographic portrayal of Jesus or Buddha is permitted. Christians and Buddhists do not usually respond to insults with bombs or guns. A pornographic portrayal of Mohammed is forbidden. Muslims often respond to insults with murderous rage.

Mr. Wickham justifies this sort of distinction by invoking the example of a man crying fire in a crowded theater. The editors of Charlie Hebdo knew that their cartoons would provoke violence that would create a clear and present danger to the peace. Therefore, their fighting words should be prohibited. He further accuses the French authorities of hypocrisy in defended Charlie Hebdo’s free speech rights while denying the rights of those who have called for violence against the magazine. I do not think that DeWayne Wickham really understands the meaning of the phrase inciting to violence nor does he appear to make a distinction between speech that someone may find offensive and speech that calls for violence against a person perceived to be causing offense. The former must be permitted or there is no freedom of speech. The latter must be forbidden or the violent will deny freedom of speech.

I will try to explain what I mean. If I am addressing a rally of the Ku Klux Klan and I state that everyone in the audience should go out and kill an African-American ( I know what word they would really use, but nevermind.) that would clearly be an incitement to violence. If someone actually did kill someone afterwards, I might be considered legally responsible. I would certainly be morally responsible. Clearly, such speech ought not to be allowed. If, on the other hand, I made the statement that African-Americans were all stupid, that would not be an incitement to violence, even if such a statement would certainly be offensive to an African-American reporter covering the rally. If that reporter jumped up onto the podium and punched me in the face, he would be arrested and charged with assault. The fact that he found my speech offensive would not be considered justification for his action, although a jury might not convict him. The Black reporter would be responsible for his action, not me. The statement that African-Americans are all stupid is protected speech, even if the statement is offensive and even hateful.

In like fashion, Charlie Hebdo is not responsible for the actions of Muslims who find its cartoons offensive. They do not have to read the magazine. They can publish their own magazine mocking the sort of people the cartoonists and editors are likely to be. To blame Charlie Hebdo for their actions is really rather insulting since it implies that those people are savages who cannot really be responsible for their actions. To argue that this magazine should be in any way suppressed because of the threat of violence is giving the violent a veto over our speech and thus ending the concept of free speech. One might think that the dean of a school of journalism would understand that.

 

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