Charlie Hebdo Attack Raises Question: Is Free Speech Protected In France?

The attack on Charlie Hebdo that left twelve people dead and the dramatic twin standoffs with terrorists left France reeling. The immediate response of many people around the world was to defend Charlie Hebdo‘s right to publish the offending cartoons that brought the attackers to its door. Millions took to the streets and to the Internet to declare “Je suis Charlie.” Now, the debate has turned to examine whether the same free speech rights so vehemently defended for the staff of Charlie Hebdo apply to others in France, as well.

The Huffington Post reports that since the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, French police have arrested more than 70 people for comments that appeared to praise the terrorists or encourage terrorist attacks. The detainees range from a man who was drunk to a comedian.

Comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala was arrested as a result of a Facebook post, in which he quipped that he felt like “Charlie Coulibaly,” mixing the names of Charlie Hebdo and Amedy Coulibaly, the attacker who held hostages at the kosher grocery store. Dieudonne wrote an open letter to French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve saying, in part, “You consider me like Amedy Coulibaly when I am no different from Charlie.” Dieudonne is alluding to the perceived double standard when it comes to protecting speech against Muslims versus speech directed against other groups, particularly the Jewish community.

In the U.S., there are differences of opinion based on demographics regarding whether or not Charlie Hebdo should have exercised its free speech by depicting the Prophet Mohammed. The Pew Research Center interviewed a sample group of just over 1,000 people. Of the 76 percent who had heard about the attack, 60 percent said it was okay for Charlie Hebdo to have published the cartoons depicting Mohammed. Twenty-eight percent of respondents said the cartoons should not have been published, and 12 percent said they didn’t know or declined to answer. Breaking the data down by demographics tells the more interesting story. Seventy percent of whites surveyed said it was okay for Charlie Hebdo to have published the cartoons versus only 37 percent of non-whites. The study suggests that perception of what is free speech as opposed to hate speech, or at least unacceptable speech, may be impacted by race and ethnicity.

Amnesty International has criticized the French government for the arrests, which allow for sentences of up to seven years for defending or inciting terrorism. Australian political scientist John Keane is quoted as saying that the arrests encourage the perception in the Muslim community that “the satirizing of Jewish people and the insult of Jewish people is not permitted under French law, and yet that same principle, for the moment, does not apply to Muslims.” The attacks on Charlie Hebdo leave open the question of how to balance free speech with responsible speech in a multicultural society.

[Image: Role Reboot]