Still not clear on the concept is reporting a somewhat surprising and unfortunate trend in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders: a lot of French people are on the terrorists’ side when it comes to whether or not it should be legal to draw Mohammed.

The recent attack by Islamic extremists at the offices of Charlie Hebdo that killed 12 people in apparent revenge for publishing cartoons of Mohammed has led to a fierce defence of France’s freedom of speech laws by politicians, media and millions of French citizens – including at a huge unity march in Paris on January 11.

But an Ifop poll published in France’s Journal du Dimanche (Sunday Journal) paints a much more divided picture of French attitudes towards what is considered a key facet of the country’s republican values…

Half of those questioned also said they believed there should be “limitations on free speech online and on social networks”.

This is not just unclear on the concept, it is dangerously unclear on the concept.

The vital concept here is “free speech” or in other words the freedom to say what you want. The reason that’s a vital concept is because free speech is an essential part of fighting injustice and oppression. The first step in bringing justice and liberty to a country is being able to expose what is wrong, and to rally support in favor of fighting it. You can’t do that if the establishment has the power to forbid you from saying anything that upsets or offends them.

That’s why limitations on free speech do not merely restrict it, they destroy it. Ok, I agree, that’s an oversimplification, because there are some limits on free speech. People can use words to directly harm people, e.g. slander, libel, terroristic threats, harassment, and so on. Restrictions on causing actual harm to people are ok.

Content-based restrictions, however, are deadly to free speech, and doubly so in the case of religious content. If you’re going to say, “Thou shalt not mock Mohammed,” then why not also say, “Thou shalt not disparage the Pope,” or “Thou shalt not criticize the State Church”? Entire denominations have been built out of criticizing the Church and disparaging the Pope! And if thou shalt not mock Mohammed, then why not also outlaw criticisms of Islam, and jihad?

But some will say, “Mohammed cartoons are a special case, because they provoke terrorist attacks.” That’s the most dangerous restriction of all, because now you’re building a system where questions of censorship are decided by terrorists. Don’t like cartoons of Mohammed? Start killing people until the cartoons stop. Unflattering press coverage of ISIS? Start murdering journalists until they start saying nice things. Is somebody saying that Muslim children should be free to become Christians or atheists if they want? Quickly, my brothers, more bombs!

Freedom of speech is the foundation of all other forms of liberty, and our only hope for building a just and reasonable and compassionate society. We must not allow it to die by the death of a thousand cuts.


  1. Anne Fenwick says

    Are you aware that freedom of speech laws are already different in most European countries compared to the US? Holocaust denialism is illegal in several countries and anti-hate speech laws also exist. I believe Ireland may have anti-blasphemy laws, but I’m not sure and the UK just annoyed a lot of people by banning a whole load of forms of pornography.

  2. Nick Gotts says

    The claim that limits on free speech beyond those you happen to approve of destroy it is simply tosh, amply disproved by the fact that most European countries have had laws against various kinds of “hate speech” for decades, but free speech continues to exist in those countries.

    • EnlightenmentLiberal says

      >free speech continues to exist
      Unless of course you are one of those people who are charged under one of those laws. And people often are. Like that comedian mentioned in the OP. You are using the term “free speech”, but I don’t know what you mean.

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