Once More into the Breach of Free Speech

Published: January 14, 2015

By Jim Lichtman
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“Je Suis Charlie,” (I am Charlie) has become a symbol not only of free speech, but freedom itself.

Looking like a scene from the Broadway musical Les Miserables, more than a million, including leaders from around the world, marched in the streets of Paris on Sunday in support of freedom of expression.


Despite the murderous attack on the offices of the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, the editors have revealed the cover ahead of the next issue scheduled for release today. It displays a caricature of the prophet Mohammed crying, holding a sign that reads: “Je Suis Charlie.” The headline: “All is forgiven.”

However, “Muslim groups and scholars in France and elsewhere,” The New York Times writes (Jan. 13), “voiced concerns on Tuesday that a satirical newspaper’s first cover since the attack on its journalists last week could ignite dangerous new passions in a debate pitting free speech against religious doctrine.

“One of Egypt’s highest Islamic authorities, Dar al-Ifta, warned that the new cartoon, depicting the Prophet Muhammad, would exacerbate tensions between the secular West and observant Muslims.”

Clearly, in France, as in many countries, they have a right to freedom of expression, but is it always right?

The self-serving conservative “commentator” Ann Coulter explains that her frequent use of ad hominem attacks is really satire. Does this sound like satire to you?

– In referencing middle-easterners at a February, 2006 C-PAC conference, Coulter said, “I think our motto should be, post-9/11, ‘rag-head talks tough, rag-head faces consequences.”

– In March, 2010, Coulter came face-to-face with a Muslim student who took exception to a remark the conservative made when she said that Muslims shouldn’t be allowed on airplanes, but rather “take flying carpets.”

University of Ottawa student Fatima Al-Dhaher flatly told Coulter that she didn’t own a flying carpet. What mode of transportation would she then suggest?

“What mode of transportation?” Coulter repeated, straight-faced. “Take a camel.”

– In a Fox News interview Coulter defends the murder of abortion doctor George Tiller. “I don’t really like to think of it as murder. It was terminating Tiller in the 203rd trimester.”

My problem with many individuals in high-profile communications is the fact that while they pound their chest about rights, too often, they forget about responsibility.

A couple of years ago, I was having a conversation with a college student when the subject of the Kennedy assassination came up. This outwardly brainy student went on to tout his belief that, just as Oliver Stone makes clear in his film JFK, Kennedy’s death was the result of a vast conspiracy proven by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison.

While many Americans, to this day, believe that Kennedy’s death was a conspiracy, Garrison’s theories have long-since been debunked. When I pressed this History major on whether he felt the movie was fact-based, he casually responded, “Well, they wouldn’t have allowed it to be made if it wasn’t true.”

The problem I sometimes have with freedom of expression is that it appears to approve of patently disrespectful, inaccurate or irresponsible information.

While I do not support censorship, from an ethical standpoint, the wise choice is to do more than the law requires and less than the law allows. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart observed, “there is a big difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”


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