On Wednesday, 12 human beings were massacred in Paris. The motivation for the attack, it appears, was retaliation for the typically religiously offensive cartoons published by the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo. But if you listen to our leaders, they weren't the real targets here. It was something ineffable and harder to define: freedom of speech.
The attack, President Obama said, “underscores that these terrorists fear freedom of speech and freedom of the press,” echoing a statement made by John Kerry that “freedom of expression is not able to be killed by this kind of act of terror.” Leaders from throughout Europe joined in. “We must never allow the values that we hold dear of democracy, of freedom of speech to be damaged by these terrorists,” David Cameron said at a meeting with Angela Merkel, who reiterated much of the same. Editorial and political cartoon pages from throughout the world almost unanimously came to the same conclusion. “Paris terrorists aimed at freedom of expression, we must defend it,” read one characteristic headline in the LA Times.
It's fitting that one of the most common clichés invoked in times like this is a quote often misattributed to Voltaire—“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”—as most of the time when it comes to freedom of speech, many of us don’t seem to know exactly what it is we’re talking about. Consider the boob in Maryland, city councilor Kirby Delauter, who has threatened to sue the Frederick News-Post for merely mentioning his name in print for evidence of that.
To paraphrase the old saying about pornography: I may not be able to define freedom of speech, but as long as it applies to the type of thing that gets me off, it qualifies.
Like much of the rhetoric that comes attached to freedom of speech, the “Voltaire” quote is meant as a robust championing of sobriety and fairness. The speaker conjures up centuries of collective sagacity, aligning oneself with an eternal, inarguable good. Certainly no one can argue with that. No one wants to align with less freedom at a time like this. At least not publicly.
This has been in no short supply this week, with many saying that, yes, while much of the material published by Charlie Hebdo was indeed offensive, perhaps racist, and certainly well over the line of propriety, the very fact that they were in operation despite those disagreeable qualities is what makes freedom of speech so important in the first place.
Embedded within the protections of freedom of speech, however, is also the freedom to exaggerate, to manipulate, to grandstand, and this is exactly what much of the world’s political reaction to this tragedy amounts to. It is grandstanding for a right rarely protected unless under immediate attack.
For all of our noble appeals to the freedoms provided for in our Bill of Rights at home, the Obama administration has continued its own slow, less sensational attack on freedom of the press. Earlier last year, both the United States Department of Justice and the White House Press Office took home top dishonors at Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression for their efforts in vigorously prosecuting government whistleblowers at home, like Chelsea Manning, and Edward Swowden, while extending those intimidation tactics to rank and file members of the press. In recent years the administration has filed a search warrant to investigate Fox News reporter James Rosen for talking to a government leaker, and subpoenaed the phone records of the Associated Press to name just a few chilling encroachments.
Elsewhere, courts throughout the country have placed limits on speech this year. A grand juror in the Ferguson case is suing to be able to explain exactly what went down in the courtroom. And as the trial for the accused Boston Marathon bomber begins, cameras will not be allowed inside to record proceedings that could sentence him to death.
As WGBH media critic Dan Kennedy put it, “What all of these cases have in common is the belief by some government officials that the press and the public should be treated like mushrooms: watered and in the dark. These matters are not mere threats to abstract constitutional principles. They are assaults on the public’s right to know.”
Back in 2012 during a previous controversy involving Charlie Hebdo, then-press secretary Jay Carney offered a somewhat less robust appeal to the ideals of freedom of expression.
“Obviously, we have questions about the judgment of publishing something like this. We know that these images will be deeply offensive to many and have the potential to be inflammatory,” he said. “But we’ve spoken repeatedly about the importance of upholding the freedom of expression that is enshrined in our Constitution.”
In other words, the free speech exhibited by the folks at Charlie Hebdo was not virtuous—until there was a body count.
Sadly, it appears the American press often doesn't need any outside help when it comes to censoring themselves. The Associated Press cropped out any depictions of Muhammad in their images they distributed throughout the world in the aftermath of the attack, something they say is general policy. After pushback from conservative media pointing out that the AP featured a photo of Andres Serrano’s infamous “Piss Christ”, they appear to have removed that photo form their archives as well. Many other press outlets, all while beating the drum of freedom of speech, self-censored their own photos of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, including the New York Daily News and the Telegraph UK. Almost all of the network and cable news channels said that they would not be showing the cartoons either.
Freedom of speech, then, is sometimes not worth the trouble that comes with it. We’ll defend to your death your right to say whatever you want, but we really don’t want to get involved in it until we can personally be celebrated for it. And definitely don’t exercise that speech in such a way that it spoils our commutes home from work.
Remember last month when the last attack on freedom of speech landed on our shores in the form of an alleged email hack of a film studio by North Korea? This is a blow against freedom of speech, we were told, by the likes of Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson.
“The cyber attack against Sony Pictures Entertainment was not just an attack against a company and its employees,” he said. “It was also an attack on our freedom of expression and way of life.” Speech, in this case, is our ability to spend money on a goofy entertainment.
Freedom of speech isn’t an ideal, because ideals are fixed. It’s more of a suggestion, an empty vessel into which one can pour one’s own favored speech.
It’s not just the United States with the strange relationship to freedom of speech, of course.
“We stand absolutely united with the French people against terrorism and against this threat to our values—free speech, the rule of law, democracy. It's absolutely essential we defend those values today and every day,” Prime Minister Cameron said yesterday.
Back in 2013, the UK detained David Miranda, partner of Glenn Greenwald, for associating with someone who practiced acts of journalism. This year, a new counter-terrorism measure proposed by the government suggests that teachers responsible for children as young as nursery school age must report toddlers at risk of becoming terrorists. Plans for so-called Extremism Disruption Orders were also announced late last year in the UK, which critics say would ban those considered extremists from sharing their beliefs in public spaces, or online, without permission. Sounds extreme, right? But consider how citizens here in the States are now being arrested for posting threatening messages aimed at police on Facebook.
France’s the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, much like our Declaration of Independence, laid the groundwork for the type of mostly robust speech its countrymen enjoy today. “The free communication of thoughts and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of man: any citizen thus may speak, write, print freely, save [if it is necessary] to respond to the abuse of this liberty, in the cases determined by the law.”
There are limits, of course. You can’t shout fire in a crowded theater, another cliché invoked almost without fail in any discussion like this, and so we curb free speech from the start. In France, there have been multiple encroachments over the years, curtailing one’s theoretically unbridled freedom. In July of last year, a court overruled a Muslim woman’s argument that the country's ban on wearing burqas violated her rights. And the Pleven Act of 1972, for example, prohibits incitement of hatred, discrimination, racist insults, and slander. In 1990, the country further made anti-Semitic speech—including Holocaust denial—illegal, something you'll find in many of the other European countries touched by World War II. A few years back, designer John Galliano was fined by the government for sharing just such anti-semitic sentiments in public.
Meanwhile, the self-professed most patriotic citizens in this country harp on our military’s presence in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, insisting that, if not for these brave soldiers, the very foundation of our culture—our speech freedoms—would collapse overnight.
Yet those who question the unwavering justness of any action by the American military are often invited to shut their mouths, or given directions to the nearest port of exit. It wasn't that long ago that entertainers like the Dixie Chicks were being roundly denounced and taken off the air for having the temerity to question our country’s wars.
Police, their representatives and supporters tell us, ensure our freedom of speech through our ability to protest. But they don't really want us to use it, as it’s a sign of disrespect for their protection of our speech.
Spouting off against police online has become criminalized in recent weeks. Rudy Giuliani, among other national figures, actually managed to shift the blame in the shooting of two NYPD officers to protesters exercising their freedom of assembly.
One wants speech to be free, but one doesn't actually want to hear it.