Charlie Hebdo & The Right to Freedom of Speech

On January 7th 2015, two men forced themselves into the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo with Kalashnikovs and executed 12 people. And what was the motivation behind this reprehensible act? A belief that the depiction of Mohommed was an insult to Islam and, therefore, a punishable offence. Much has been deliberated in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo and whether the magazine’s stance towards Islam was culturally and racially insensitive; only recently, writers such as Joyce Carole Oates and Michael Ondaatje protested against the PEN Award for the magazine as they considered this to be legitimizing the mocking of a “section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized”.

Whereas Charlie Hebdo’s depictions of Mohommed and representation of Islam are problematic, the atrocity has inspired a timeless debate that transcends this particular context: should there ever be an unabated right to free speech? Although the magazine’s cartoons purported discussions on the accountability of ‘hate’ speech, to restrict free speech would be oxymoronic; it would undermine the very essence of the freedom if one was to impose limitations and restrictions on the right.

But it is important to realise that an argument against free speech is one that is not only concerned with philosophical contradictions, but, in addition, holds a practical detriment to society. When considering the realities of imposing limitations to our right to free speech, we may ask ourselves who exactly are determining these limits? By entertaining the thought that we should impose restrictions on our right to express ourselves freely, are we not setting ourselves down a ‘slippery slope’ towards creating a repressive establishment of censoring speech that is simply ideologically contentious?

Although it has been argued that free speech is an ‘illusion’, an ‘ideal’, and something that simply does not exist in an age of libel and slander, the argument that we should embrace this reality is not acceptable. However ‘ideal’ the notion of an unabated right to free speech may be, it is still a worthy right that any self-respecting democracy should be fighting for. The Charlie Hebdo atrocity, then, has become symbolic of the tenuous relationship between taking political accountability towards ‘hate’ speech and racial insensitivity whilst retaining our own freedoms.

However, it needs to be emphasised that the perpetuation of racist attitudes and cultural intolerance are a manifestation of deep-rooted socio-economic problems which a restriction to free speech would only inadequately respond to. Governments need to take initiatives that are not reacting against an emotional rhetoric or zeitgeist, but, instead, form policies that act as a productive measure in aiming to change these attitudes. It would arguably be more beneficial to focus on cultural integration, the representation of ethnic minorities on all levels of government, and fostering a dialogue between the isolated few who may be tempted by extremist propaganda.

The right to free speech is a cornerstone of any democracy and to restrict it would not only be a philosophical oxymoron, but socially irresponsible.

– Dharini Yugambaranathan, GDL Student


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