What Freedom of Speech Really Means

In the late morning of 7 January 2015, two armed gunmen entered the headquarters of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo and opened fire. In the aftermath, the massacre left twelve dead and eleven wounded, including Charlie Hebdo workers, journalists, and local law enforcement. When news of the shooting spread across mainstream media, it seemed as though the world banded together in support of France and Charlie Hebdo. This deepened when news confirmed the two perpetrators, brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, were in alliance with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Charlie Hebdo had previously attracted attention for its problematic criticism of religion, often against the Abrahamic faiths. Those targeted at Islam specifically included several jokes and depictions of the Prophet Muhammad (which is condemned in a vast amount of Qur’anic interpretations) and other Islamic leaders, often times in a degrading fashion. Responses to these publications included protests, website hackings, attack plots, and even a 2006 lawsuit against the company, which was ultimately unsuccessful.

Because the intent behind the shooting was to put a halt to the lewd publications and “avenge the Prophet Muhammad,” it has since been referred to as an attack against freedom. Freedom of speech has become the overall defense—excuse—of Charlie Hebdo, and the leading point in why the shooting was senseless and remains condemnable.

But is that an acceptable justification?

Freedom of speech is a complex principle with a multitude of exemptions. It is defined as the right to express any opinions without fear of government retaliation or censorship. The government cannot lawfully tell its people what they can and cannot say. This, however, does not mean that the government can protect them from how other people react to what has been said.

The term freedom of speech seems to give many a god complex in the sense that they can say what they want, which is just not correct. It does not mean you can walk around and say what you want without repercussions. It most likely won’t get you out of being slapped for mouthing off at your mother, and it won’t get you out of detention for shouting expletives in the middle of class.

“Conversations about freedom of speech are so annoying to me because people…they’ll just use the term ‘freedom of speech’ to okay any and everything.”
— Zeba Blay, Two Brown Girls 81

Freedom of speech is important, after all what’s the point in having an opinion if you’re not allowed to share it? It’s a dynamic that allows for new ideas and innovative ways of living to be built. Freedom of speech was implemented into the Constitution and declarations worldwide to prohibit government censorship among citizens as exhibited in countries like North Korea and Saudi Arabia. You, however, are responsible for what comes out of your mouth, or from your drawing board, and that cannot be backed by the Constitution.

Whenever there is a conversation about free speech occurring, it seems as though the thing being defended is something hurtful. One would think that using language or expressing your viewpoints in a way that won’t offend an entire group of people was human decency rather than attack against the ability to criticize others.

Did Charlie Hebdo’s history of ill-intended publications call for the injuries or death of two dozen? Of course not, violence isn’t the solution to contrasting opinions, especially when done in the name of a religion of over one and a half billion adherents. However using freedom of speech as a means to justify Charlie Hebdo in their wrongdoing completely disregards the dialogue presented by dismissing the overwhelming gray area of this discussion, and makes the situation black and white when there is actually a lot in play. More specifically, it mums the point of view of Muslims and makes their beliefs sound ludicrous, hence turging freedom of speech into a contradictory tool to hatred.

So to summarize, say what you want, but don’t be surprised when you are faced with retaliation for being rude, bigoted, and offensive. After all it is their right, right?



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