Freedom of speech has intensified as a topic of discussion in the wake of the shooting on January 7 at the headquarters of the Paris-based satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo. The assault, which claimed the lives of 12 people, is assumed to be a response to Hebdo printing caricaturized images of Mohammad, according to the New York Times.
The hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, a movement aimed to show solidarity for the victims of the shooting and their families, the weekly, and the Parisian community and its right to freedom of expression, continues to trend on Twitter. The Daily Mail reported the hashtag was tweeted over 250,000 times within four hours of the incident.
Few issues have so successfully united both the left and the right in American politics, with almost universal outrage over what most commentators believe to be an attack on the basic human right of freedom of speech.
But freedom of speech, and blasphemy in particular, isn’t universally protected around the world, even among many liberal democracies. According to a 2011 study published by the Pew Research Center, 47 percent of the world’s countries have laws against blasphemy, apostasy and/or defamation of religion, including religious hate speech. These laws are not limited to the countries one might typically expect. European countries such as Ireland, Germany and Denmark, among others, currently have laws against blasphemy and defamation of religion.
Even America has shown discomfort with certain expressions of blasphemy.
In 2012, Charlie Hebdo (the same publication that was the victim of Wednesday’s shooting) published a special edition where it “invited” Muhammad to be its guest editor, according to The Telegraph. Following this publication, a firebomb was used to destroy the Charlie Hebdo office.
In a 2012 press briefing, the White House, commenting on this incident, said, “We are aware that a French magazine published cartoons featuring a figure resembling the Prophet Muhammad, and 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.”
But while encouraging the exercise of judgment in speech, the White House maintained America's long-held devotion to freedom of expression. Further, these events have brought to the surface a renewed vigor for free speech advocates.
“The most troubling speech deserves the most protection; it should be given the light of day, where it can be examined and confronted with counter arguments and debate,” a Deseret News editorial declared on Jan. 9. Further, Ross Douthat's column for The New York Times, “The Blasphemy We Need,” asserts, “Both liberalism and liberty require that it be welcomed and defended.”
Travis Miller is an assistant Web producer for the Moneywise and Opinion sections of DeseretNews.com