The line that separates free speech from toxic talk

DeWayne Wickham at USA Today says Charlie Hebdo has gone too far with the “all is forgiven” cover. Right; forgiveness is going way too far. So extreme much fanatical.

Charlie Hebdo has gone too far.

In its first publication following the Jan. 7 attack on its Paris office, in which two Muslim gunmen massacred 12 people, the once little-known French satirical news weekly crossed the line that separates free speech from toxic talk.

Toxic talk? Portraying a Mohammed who cares is toxic talk? Portraying a Mohammed who is saddened by what three of his more hateful followers did is toxic talk? How does that work, exactly? How is it toxic to offer a Mo who doesn’t rejoice at piles of fresh corpses but instead weeps at them?

Charlie Hebdo‘s latest depiction of the prophet Mohammed — a repeat of the very action that is thought to have sparked the murderous attack on its office — predictably has given rise to widespread violence in nations with large Muslim populations.

Ok that’s a two-parter. First, apparently the idea is “how dare they repeat the very action that is thought to have sparked the murderous attack on its office?” So the idea is that they did a very wicked thing in again doing something they and we and everyone have every right to do. That’s like saying it’s very wicked to do something a Mafia enforcer has told you, with menaces, not to do. We are allowed to draw images of Mohammed. We are allowed to draw images of Mohammed, Jesus, god, Shiva, Vishnu, Buddha, Athena, Loki – any god, any prophet, any cleric, any godling, angel, demon, hymn-singer, anyone we like. People are not allowed to kill us for doing that, and they are not allowed to threaten us with violence for doing that.

Second, the utter nonsense about predictability and “given rise to” and blaming the victims for that. This isn’t plate tectonics; people can choose not to engage in violence because someone drew a cartoon; we can’t decide what we’re allowed to do based on predictions about unreasonable and unlawful violent responses to what we do.

While the Obama administration condemned these deadly attacks, it probably wasn’t surprised. Two years ago, then-press secretary Jay Carney questioned the judgment of Charlie Hebdo‘s editors when they published an offensive depiction of Mohammed. That came a year after the newspaper’s office was firebombed when it tauntingly named Mohammed its guest editor. That portrayal came with a caption that read: “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing.”

Then-press secretary Jay Carney was wrong. Obama was wrong when he said the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. DeWayne Wickham is wrong.

Ten people have been killed during protests in Niger, a former French colony. Other anti-French riots have erupted from North Africa to Asia. In reaction to all of this, Pope Francis has said of the magazine, “You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

The French, of course, are no more bound to accept the findings of the bishop of Rome than they are to be guided by the Supreme Court’s rulings on our Constitution’s free speech guarantee. But given the possible ripple effects of Charlie Hebdo‘s mistreatment of Islam’s most sacred religious figure, at least people in this country should understand the limits America’s highest court has placed on free speech.

That is just flagrantly saying “Surrender to the threats. Give up. Let the murderers have their veto.”

In 1919, the Supreme Court ruled speech that presents a “clear and present danger” is not protected by the First Amendment. Crying “fire” in a quiet, uninhabited place is one thing, the court said. But “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”

Twenty-two years later, the Supreme Court ruled that forms of expression that “inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” are fighting words that are not protected by the First Amendment.

If Charlie Hebdo‘s irreverent portrayal of Mohammed before the Jan. 7 attack wasn’t thought to constitute fighting words, or a clear and present danger, there should be no doubt now that the newspaper’s continued mocking of the Islamic prophet incites violence. And it pushes Charlie Hebdo‘s free speech claim beyond the limits of the endurable.

Triumph for the late Kouachi brothers. Next there will be a violently enforced veto on blunt criticism of Islam, then maybe Catholicists will get in on the act – the possibilities are endless.


  1. says

    Thanks for reminding me why I never bother with USA Today. And who the fuck is DeWayne Wickham? I hope he’s more authoritative than Fox’s latest “Islam expert,” the Duck Dynasty guy.

  2. says

    In 1919, the Supreme Court ruled speech that presents a “clear and present danger” is not protected by the First Amendment.

    Sorry, wrong citation. You can still criticize Republicans, Democrats, Klansmen or Communists, even when they can incite a mob to kill people in response. I’m pretty sure there’s absolutely ZERO Supreme Court decisions saying a violent mob can restrict or veto your right to free speech. In fact, it’s generally considered the state’s job to PROTECT people from mob violence.

  3. says

    Pretty confident is saying that the Pope took the stance he did because his organization has been severely criticized over the years. This gives Catholics license to react violently to those who call the RC church a corrupt organization that supports abusers and pedophiles.

  4. maudell says

    I find it odd that so many people bring up the 1919 Schenck v. US decision. I’m not an American, maybe there’s something I don’t get about it. But as I understand it, that case was a ruling against the right to *criticize* the draft. The court ruled that it was ok for the government to prosecute people simply for criticizing the draft… Sounds like a pretty bad example of a free speech restriction, and one that is no longer valid with that.

  5. footface says

    All these people respecting Islam by branding its adherents wild animals who can’t control themselves.

  6. Vincent says

    In Iran, pictures of Muhammad are sold in street markets, openly. But according to other branches of Islam, making pictures of living beings is forbidden altogether. In Saudi Arabia, even making photographs is forbidden. The rational justification (because they are very rational) is that, in the afterlife, those who drew pictures of Allah’s creatures will be ordered to give life to them, and as they will obviously not be able to do that, they will be made fun of by all other residents of Paradise. Of course, that refutes many misconceptions of modern biology.

    In France, freedom of speech is not warranted by constitution. It is by jurisprudence and it is in the declaration of human rights. Indeed, on top of the usual exceptions (false alarms, false testimony, public insult, slander…) we added a few. Incitement to racial hatred, and some historical denials. It is forbidden by law, in France, to say that the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide by the Turks didn’t happen.

    I could agree that the terrorists were not “real” Muslims, though I have a hard time distinguishing the false ones from the real ones. It seems like the real ones are those who don’t really believe it, and those who do believe are the false ones, but hell, I’m no theologian.

    What I know is that the victims were real atheists. And that they were shot for being atheists. There were plenty of embassies or government buildings to burn down to protest against French foreign politics (nothing I’m proud of, believe me) or racist newspapers to shoot to protest against French racism ( sigh…) but they shot atheists. Therefore, the killers were religious nutjobs. I couldn’t care less about which imaginary friend they worshipped.

    Now, everybody is saying “freedom of speech is great, as long as blasphemy is not tolerated” – Only Marine Lepen used the word “islamist” (which means fundamentalist Muslim, in French) because nobody wanted to assimilate the murderers to the so-called Muslim community. (Who cares if you are an atheist. If your name is Djamel, you are in the Muslim community. French politicians found a gene for Islam) – But that means granting the extreme right the monopoly of the only word everybody is thinking of. And then be surprised she makes 25% at the European elections. No one talked about atheism (Jean-Luc Melanchon, leader of the extreme left, said “they represented the right to be irreligious” and is the only one to have gone that far. Didn’t dare to use the A word, though) and nobody defends the freedom of blasphemy (only “freedom of speech”, a very relative notion in France, as I said)

    I have read several complains, here, on this blog, about Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. The truth is “you don’t know your luck”- Try to have no fucking body to speak up for atheism. No artist, no scientist, no politician, no intellectual. You would like to see more female atheist spokespersons ? We would like to see one. Male, female, Martian… Anybody is welcome and we will discuss their genitalia once the job is done. We only have Michel Onfray, left wing philosopher, who was invited on a TV show that turned out to be a mock trial of atheism where he was constantly interrupted and accused of Islamophobia (he wrote the “treaty of atheologie”, that criticised all 3 monotheisms. That is islamophobic, in France) and anyway, I had to pause the video to get a dictionary to understand him, on a popular TV talkshow (I learnt the word “irénisme” today) so I don’t believe his message really got through.

    We’ve got one association of about 10 people to criticize pseudo-sciences (Cercle de Zététique). Homoeopathy is reimbursed by Social Security at 30% – I’m sure it is even insulting to make fun of Bernad Madoff because some people believed in him. If you look for “Athée” or “Athéisme” on youtube, you find NOTHING. Well, you find 10 “atheism refuted by a simple question”, 5 crap videos made by a student and his blurry webcam years ago, one association from Brittany which website has been down since 2006, 5 videos by the racist islamophobic right wing association “riposte laïque” and, luckily, 4 videos by the Belgian atheists (!) on atheism in India, in North America, Japan, and Eastern Europe.

    Well, we are in deep shit. If I were smart and handsome, I would have a new job.

    But we have 29% of declared atheists in the polls. Almost the best score in Europe. I think it is only because cartoonists have been ridiculing the Catholic church for 200 years (and we chopped some heads off. Must admit)

  7. Silentbob says

    Say, didn’t MLK encourage some people to march, knowing they would probably be met with violence? What a toxic talker that guy was.

  8. Vincent says

    Yes, A Hermit. Just like I would like more news reports about (so called) Muslim countries where there was no demonstration against the latest Charlie’s cover. There are plenty of such countries.

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