In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, society finds itself once again jumping to the defense of free speech. To watch individuals lose their lives over controversies that arose from their words — or in this case, drawings — is not just heartbreaking, but seems to violate everything we value when it comes to the right to express oneself and one’s ideas freely.

 

Of course, as PR professionals, we know better than anyone that there are always different sides to a story. There are different angles from which a single event can be viewed, and each perspective sheds new light on an old matter.

 

Twelve people lost their lives in the attack on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters (independent.co.uk)

12 people lost their lives in the attack on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters (independent.co.uk)

In the case of Charlie Hebdo, no angle exists that justifies an act of terrorism like the one that took place here. There are, however, angles which slightly draw into question the issue of freedom of speech as it pertains to this instance of violence.

 

Conflicts regarding freedom of speech are never simple to solve. By definition, the right allows variance in interpretation, which in turn may give rise to disagreement. It is a freedom that has almost no limit, as any attempt to impose a limitation becomes in and of itself a violation of the right.

 

The circumstances surrounding freedom of speech and Charlie Hebdo are no different. This is a newspaper that has been recognized for its flagrant Islamophobic content and its racism toward a marginalized religious group in its home country. It has made a name for itself by ridiculing and mocking the faith of Islam. The attacks on the famous French newspaper, which were carried out by Muslim extremists who had been provoked by the newspaper’s content, represent a clear attack on freedom of speech because of their motivation.

 

One could end the conversation there, and indeed, many have. In reality, there is another issue at hand. While freedom of speech certainly defends the newspaper’s right to publish any material it wants, no matter how offensive, one has to wonder if this is the kind of behavior that those who coined the philosophy would have liked to see it protecting.

 

In the November 2011 of Charlie Hebdo, Prophet Muhammed serves as the "guest editor," renaming the magazine Charia Hebdo in reference to Sharia Law and appearing on the cover saying "100 lashes of the whip if you don't die laughing." (wikipedia.org)

In the November 2011 of Charlie Hebdo, Prophet Muhammed serves as the “guest editor,” renaming the magazine Charia Hebdo in reference to Sharia Law and appearing on the cover saying “100 lashes of the whip if you don’t die laughing.” (wikipedia.org)

Freedom of speech is a right born out of a desire to improve quality of life; to provide people with the opportunity to speak out against injustice and openly challenge society so that it may change for the better. We have transformed something as powerful and positive as freedom of speech into an ugly defense for our right to disrespect one another based on things like faith and culture.

 

Freedom of speech, by definition, knows few limitations. For freedom of speech to prevail as a foundation of democracy, it must encompass all forms of speech and expression. It is for that reason that Charlie Hebdo’s right to print Islamophobic content cannot be challenged.

 

However, the key point to consider here is that just because we have the right to express hatred or racism does not mean that we should pride ourselves on building societies where we flaunt such expressions. Rather, while we mourn those who have lost their lives for exercising their right to freedom of speech, we must simultaneously recognize the importance of promoting tolerance and respect above bigotry — not at the expense of freedom of speech, but alongside it. Then, free speech may be put to better use.

 

How do you view the free speech argument as it pertains to the Charlie Hebdo shooting? Share your thoughts below or tweet me @tamarahoumi