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How Free Should 'Free Speech' Be?

The world is mourning the senseless deaths in Paris of the Charlie Hebdo staff as well as the others killed during the three-day crime spree in and around Paris last week. More than a million people gathered and marched in the city, including 40 world leaders. It was an amazing and powerful sight, seeing people come together like that to honor the dead and to send a message against terrorism.

But one aspect of last week’s violence that is not getting much attention is the question of whether free speech, especially of the sort that Charlie Hebdo was known for, should have limits.

I know suggesting such a thing, especially here in America where we hold free speech to be one of our highest standards, is practically blasphemy. The same would be true in France where the history of free speech and especially satire and political and social cartoons is especially deep. France, after all, is the home of Voltaire who satirized seemingly everything from the French Wars of Religion to the Inquisition. Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were the latest in a line of satirists, going after Presidents, the Pope, other French and world leaders and of course religions, including Islam and Islamic fundamentalists.

I am by no means justifying what those terrorists did last week. But I do believe that free speech is never really free and that although we like to pretend that words are only words, we all know that words do have consequences. In America, similarly to France, we believe in building an impenetrable wall around the right to free speech. That is a mistake.

Speech and other expressions are powerful tools and speech can and does often lead to action. Deep down we all know this, which is why in this country, people can be arrested for inciting a riot with their words. There was talk that after the Ferguson, Missouri, decision to not indict Darren Wilson, Michael Brown’s stepfather, Louis Head, was under investigation and could be arrested for trying to instigate a riot when he stood up in front of already angry crowds and shouted the words, “Burn this mother****** down!”

But the danger of free speech isn’t just in throwing fuel on an already simmering fire, it is also in perpetuating hatred and religious or racial discrimination. Does anyone think it is okay for a Ku Klux Klan march and rally to happen in front of young black kids where their ugly words can be thrown in the face of such small children? Or the same for a neo-Nazi group in an area where young Jewish children could hear or be impacted?

But this is all free speech according to our beloved standard of freedom. As is anti-Muslim Quran burning and any ignorant comment someone wants to say about Islam or Muslim people.

What happened at Charlie Hebdo was completely wrong and unjustifiable. As the old saying goes, two wrongs don’t make a right. But it is important that in the aftermath of this violence we take the time to consider that not all expressions should be acceptable. I am not sure myself where to draw the line. But what I am sure of is that making fun of people’s religion, or anything that belittles a group of people, like minorities, surely is way over the line of what should be considered free.

Photo Credit: WikiCommons


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