Freedom of speech can stand against threats

Mitchell Liermann, Reporter

On the morning of Jan. 7, 2015, two armed gunmen attacked the main office of the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in Paris. The gunmen killed 12 people and wounded five more before fleeing the scene. They were pursued by police and eventually killed in an ensuing firefight.

The gunmen were Islamic extremists who attacked Charlie Hebdo based on outrage for seeing cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in recent issues.

In response to the attacks, thousands of people across the world have rallied in support of Charlie Hebdo, under the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (French for “I am Charlie”). The slogan has become a symbol of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

The events at Charlie Hebdo are a tragedy, and I will do my best not to make light of them. But it is important to remember that on that day, 12 people were murdered.

Murdered, over cartoons.

Freedom of speech is a right long enjoyed in many Western cultures and that includes the right to criticism and satire. Freedom of speech is not designed to protect popular opinion and make sure no one ever disagrees. It is designed for the exact opposite.

If anytime someone wrote, said, created something and someone else could come along and have it censored for offending them, then freedom of speech has essentially been ignored just because somebody felt like it doesn’t apply to them.

With the creation of the Internet and ever-evolving means of spreading information quickly, it becomes much harder to censor or avoid “offensive” material. The Internet has changed the world into a kind of “open marketplace of ideas,” a metaphor first proposed by John Stuart Mill, who said that ideas should be allowed to compete and be discussed openly and freely.

No group or idea can be above criticism, especially in this kind of environment, where information can flow freely. A group that has control over its own criticism can create an environment where its ideas can spread unopposed, no matter how dangerous.

As Tim Wolff, editor of the German satirical magazine Titanic, said in an interview with German news organization DW, “On the personal level, we are scared when we hear about such violence. However, as a satirist, we are beholden to the principle that every human being has the right to be parodied. This should not stop just because of some idiots who go around shooting.”

It is true that there is a constant threat of reprisal for such criticism. But if it only takes threats of violence for major news corporations and governments to decide to start censoring, then any random Joe can threaten anything he decides offends him and have it shut down.

Freedom of speech works both ways. Where there is freedom to criticize, there is freedom to defend or criticize criticism.

But the simple fact is that there cannot be a middle ground when it comes to free speech. As soon as someone says that “freedom of speech is okay, but…,” then the entire thing becomes moot. To make one exception is to make them all.