French Terror Attacks Challenge Freedom of Speech

Violence and protest proceeding the publication of cartoon images of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad by French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo has raised much opinion over the rights of journalists when it comes to respecting religious manners.

The violence that resulted from the ridicule of Prophet Muhammad included the murder of 12 staff members of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper, including former top editor Stephane Charbonnier, among various cartoonists and police officers. These murders are in addition to many brutal demonstrations in Niger, Pakistan and Algeria. According to an article in The New York Times, not only was the publication of such cartoons seen as irresponsible by the French government, but also viewed as a provocation by many Muslims especially during a time of uproar in the Islamic world.

In contrast to those angered by Charlie Hebdo, many journalists and French citizens have come to the defense of freedom of speech in France. A video on The New York Times website documented thousands of French protestors gathered in the Place de la République to show support for free speech and solidarity for those who were killed in terrorist attacks at Charlie Hebdo hours after they occurred.

“Today they have messed with something that’s essential in France; freedom of expression and freedom of the press,”  interviewee Marie-France Delol said. “I think it’s intolerable and I came here today to express my resentment.”

The hashtag “Je Suis Charlie” has spread among those who are mourning the loss of those murdered in the terrorist attacks and  those showing their support of free speech and expression in France. According to French citizen Joachim Roncin in an article on, the hashtag is meant to say “I am not afraid.”

According to an article on, Pope Francis said that horrific violence cannot be justified; however there should be limits in freedom of expression when attempting to mock another religion.

“People should be able to say in a traditional journalistic venue controversial things to a certain extent in a free society,” associate professor of political science Daniel Lipson said. “I think the healthiest approach is that producers of controversial material should try to tone it down, but they legally don’t necessarily have to in most countries that are free.”

According to Lipson, the terrorist attacks which occurred are examples of internalized oppression in which the stereotypes that majority groups hold minorities to, such as Muslims, are then perpetuated through further acts of violence.

“Those who are wounded by what is published by newspapers should not respond in violent acts of revolution, much like we are seeing in this situation,” Lipson said. “With my longstanding passions with both activist and scholarly studies within racial politics, I am acutely aware of how sensitive, especially minorities, are. It is easy to say ‘people should have thicker skin’ but this is generally not the case.”

This isn’t the first instance that has given Charlie Hebdo a reputation for controversy. According to an article on, in November 2011, the newspaper was due to release an issue with a cover cartoon of a bearded and turbaned cartoon figure of the Prophet Muhammad with a speech-bubble saying, “100 lashes if you’re not dying of laughter.” In September 2012, Charlie Hebdo published an issue containing a crude, naked cartoon of Muhammad being pushed in a wheelchair by what looked like an Orthodox Jew. Charlie Hebdo journalist Laurent Leger, according to an article on, told BFM-TV in 2012 that the purpose of these cartoons were not to intended to provoke violence and anger, but to poke fun at extremists of ideas they did not agree with.

“I do not think this was a specifically targeted provocation toward any group, including Islam,” Chair of Digital Media & Journalism Department at SUNY New Paltz, Jerry Persaud, said. “This is a known satirical publication that uses parody and caricature as cartoon styles. Their cartoons are often provocative and at times even distasteful to some — even many.”

The rights of journalist, artists, authors and publishers, according to Persaud, are not “absolute rights,” as these rights in both the philosophical and legal context must have moral mediation with civic/civil responsibility. Persaud said that although violent uproars will exist with or without journalists and publications such as Charlie Hebdo, journalists and editors must exercise their judgment and authority in a similar way they exercise their craft and responsibility.

“There are many who see it as their right and duty to defend Islam against such an attack and/or disrespect — perceived or otherwise. We know that instruments and institutions of communication-information-propaganda during a war is open to attack if it is serving as an offensive,” Persaud said. “Is it possible some in defense of Islam saw Charlie Hebdo as such and constructed/interpreted their views the way NATO/US does? After all, we have heard from several western leaders many a time that ‘this is a war on terror.’  Is all fair in love and war or in war and peace?”