Freedom of speech is a right held close to heart by Americans and anyone who lives in a democratic state. The first amendment of our constitution protects our freedom of the press, religious expression and ability to protest. What about when expression infringes on or condemns another person’s religious beliefs? What happened to the journalists at Charlie Hebdo was a tragedy, but instead of disapproving of the controversial cartoons that led to the shooting we’re celebrating their insensitive caricatures as freedom of expression.
As New York Times columnist David Brooks mentioned, if Charlie Hebdo attempted to publish their satirical cartoons in the United States they would have lost funding, been accused of publishing anti-Islamic propaganda, and been faced with a lawsuit from an Islamic organization. The satirical newspaper has made fun of Islamic beliefs since 2006 when they featured a picture of the prophet Muhammad weeping about Fundamentalism.
It is forbidden to depict the prophet, yet Charlie Hebdo continued to depict Muhammad in a series of offensive, and at one point pornographic, cartoons that mocked Islam. Though they received requests from the French government to stop displaying the prophet, the cartoonists continued to print derogative caricatures of Muhammad up until the attack.
The cartoons perpetuated the stereotype of Muslims as terrorists and stirred anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe. In France and other European countries, Muslims are the impoverished minority and face racial prejudice. It is one thing to poke fun at religious customs or practices, but to blatantly disrespect an important religious figure is sacrilege in its own right, and to portray the entire Muslim population as terrorists because of extremist groups is racist. The twelve journalists were not martyrs of free speech; they were anti-Islamic cartoonists that brought the attack on themselves by publishing offensive depictions of Muhammad after several pleas from Islamic leaders and the French government to stop the controversial publications.
By law, the first amendment allows people to say virtually anything they want even if it is derogatory and offends a large group of people. However, there are ramifications for our words that result in actions that were completely unintended. If someone were to shout “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater as a joke to see what would happen, they would be free to do so because of the first amendment.
If panicked moviegoers stormed out of the theater, destroyed property, and trampled someone to death, then the person who shouted “Fire!” would be responsible for the damage they caused since his action incited a stampede that lead to the other person’s death. While we are technically free to say whatever we want in a legal sense, there is a difference between voicing your opinion and hate speech that can inspire bloodshed.
As a Jesuit university, Boston College tries to maintain that fine line between free speech and religion. We are required to take theology as part of the Core and regularly see Jesuits around the campus, but not every student is Catholic. While Catholicism is emphasized more on campus because of our affiliation, the school does not criticize other religions; it allows students of different backgrounds to practice their particular faiths; and funds different religious organizations on campus. Is BC a big happy family where every demographic is OK with the administration’s choices? Definitely not. The demonstrations of last semester and the subsequent backlash from the administration prove that. However, having outlets like student publications and UGBC to relay our sentiments to the administration prevents an armed insurrection.
What happened in France was a tragedy, but we should not celebrate Charlie Hebdo as heroic martyrs of free speech. They were cartoonists who crossed the line of free speech and entered into the realm of racism and anti-Islamic bigotry. They were killed by Islamic extremists, who misinterpreted the actual meaning of jihad in the Qur’an and represent a misguided minority of Muslims. Freedom of speech should promote neither the persecution of religious or racial groups nor the racist publications that satirize those marginalized by society.
English professor Treseanne Ainsworth said, “Before people stand in solidarity with France, they should know what they are standing for.” Before you make up your mind on the issue, look at the translations and graphic cartoons of Muhammad, and ask yourself if it is comical or offensive. If you truly stand for freedom of expression, the social justice values taught at Boston College, or against injustices of any kind including racism, sexism, ageism, or homophobia, then you should not stand with publications that produce offensive propaganda. The Charlie Hebdo massacre should remind us to rethink what can be classified as free or offensive speech. The twelve journalists did not die in vain, but we should learn from their mistakes instead of celebrating their misguided actions.