People gather for a vigil in the Manhattan borough of New York Jan. 7 to pay tribute to the victims of a shooting by gunmen at the offices of weekly satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Pope Francis condemned the killings of at least 12 people at the offices of the publication Jan. 7 and denounced all "physical and moral" obstacles to the peaceful coexistence of nations, religions and cultures. CNS photo/Carlo Allegri, Reuters

Freedom’s not free

  • January 15, 2015

More than three million people marched in cities across France on Jan. 11 to decry the deaths of 17 terror victims and to publicly defend liberty and free speech. In their sheer numbers and massive support of fundamental human rights, the French people deserve the world’s praise and support.

What transpired over three days in Paris was an affront to decency and democratic rights across the free world. Twelve people were gunned down at a satirical tabloid, followed by a police officer’s murder and then four murders in a Jewish delicatessen — all at the hands of Islamist extremists. But it was the brazen attack on the satirical tabloid Charlie Hebdo that galvanized world attention.

When Parliament Hill was attacked by a lone gunman in October it was called an assault on our democracy and on the rights and freedoms of Canadians.

Similarly, the attack intended to silence an irreverent Paris publication was interpreted in the French Republic as an assault on free speech and liberty. It was in outrage at those murders and in solidarity for freedom that millions commendably took to the streets.

However, a distinction must be made between supporting democratic rights and supporting publications or organizations that, like Charlie Hebdo, are deliberately crude and play to some of the most coarse, often anti-religious, impulses of society. That is the danger in slogans like “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie), which sprang up after the massacre in Paris. Society must support the cause of free speech without aping how it is applied at one caustic tabloid.

It’s appropriate to show compassion and solidarity with victims cut down by terrorists. In the case of the murders at Charlie Hebdo, as objectionable as the tabloid can be, sacrilegious depictions can never warrant murder. As Pope Francis said, “homicidal violence is abominable, is never justified.” But in the aftermath of the shootings, many news outlets around the world opted to show solidarity with the victims by reprinting Charlie Hebdo cartoons that mocked Islam. That was their right, of course. Freedom of expression means publishers can choose to be offensive. For a day, they could become Charlie Hebdo.

Yet it’s difficult to understand why moderate publications would scorn their own standards by reprinting material they would otherwise reject because it was created to deliberately ridicule people or their beliefs. Difficult times call for organizations to cling firmly to their values. In most cases, that means adhering to the standard that just because you can print something doesn’t mean you should.

Publications like Charlie Hebdo champion free expression by taking it to unfiltered limits. The law allows it, so they do it. But it would be a tragic outcome if the unconscionable horror inflicted at the magazine causes a surge in publishing extremists.

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