Je Suis Charlie

By: Melissa Wang

On Jan. 7, two Islamic gunmen stormed the Paris headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in response to cartoons depicting and lampooning Muhammad, an act considered blasphemous by Muslims. Leaving fourteen people dead, the incident exploded into an international question on the limits of free speech.
The public response to the shooting was overwhelmingly supportive as huge numbers of people around the world came out to brandish oversized pencils in massive rallies and the hashtag “Je Suis Charlie” proliferated across social media. Such a global support of freedom of speech and condemnation of violence is indeed heartwarming. However, the responses from governments around the world have been severely lacking.

As with any controversial event, there were also anti-Charlie Hebdo protests. The French government exercised atrocious judgment by arresting 54 people in hate speech related crimes, including a comedian by the name of Dieudonné M’bala M’bala who posted a message of unity with one of the Islamist gunmen. The French government charged Dieudonné with “incitement of terrorism.” This seemingly hypocritical move reflects the complex French laws regarding free speech. Essentially, individuals are protected while churches and doctrines are not. For example, actress Brigitte Bardot was fined for insulting the population of French Muslims, while writer Michel Houellebecq was not fined for calling Islam “the stupidest religion.”

French and English leaders have been violating basic free speech laws by proposing internet censorship as an option for battling against terror propaganda and plots. Admittedly, these proposals were present before the shootings, but recent events have caused a resurgence in relevance. Several foreign ministers from European countries, including France, Germany, and Great Britain, recently proposed that internet providers begin to censor any material they deem as terrorist propaganda. English Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that the country ban internet services that did not allow the government to monitor encrypted calls, chats, messages, etc.
These measures are ridiculous. Germany recently attacked the U.S. for monitoring its own citizen’s personal correspondence and is now proposing to do the same exact thing. Furthermore, allowing internet service providers to censor information belies a gross misunderstanding of the entire point of this situation. You cannot attend a rally supporting free speech and then turn around and introduce legislature to stifle free speech. Biases simply play too heavily into censorship, especially in terms of religion. After all, these laws encompass not only mainstream religions such as Islam and Christianity, but also more controversial religions such as satanic worship and scientology. While the government has good intentions, it is trying to control something that exists in gray more often than black and white.

The Charlie Hebdo shootings have brought to light a deeper conflict over just how far freedom of speech can go. Most people would admit that insulting another’s religion is rude and impolite, but Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine whose sole purpose is to ridicule sensitive topics. The magazine constantly uses vulgar comics and words to describe various world leaders, including the Pope. People have a right to express their opinions, no matter how vicious and just plain wrong they are. However, people are not allowed to turn their opinions into unassailable truths, which is one of the reasons libel laws preventing slander and defamation exist. The blurry line between opinion and statement of fact is debatable. However, freedom of speech is not a buffet; you cannot just pick and choose when it is acceptable.

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