Freedom of the press and speech are not optional in the United States of America. The First Amendment does not state that those liberties are afforded as long as no one is offended or disagrees. Similarly in France, the site of terror attacks against the staff members of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the law on the freedom of the press guarantees these individual rights.
While French law provides some amount of defense for libel, the magazine was well within its legal rights to publish cartoons criticizing religion. If the terrorists thought that they had grounds for libel charges against Charlie Hebdo, they could have, through the unique French legal system, taken the magazine to court and made them prove their statements. If proven guilty, Charlie would have incurred either fiscal penalties or been forced to make public apologies.
The morality of deciding to publish cartoons that deliberately offend large groups of people is questionable, as some would argue that whatever entertainment value they provide is heavily outweighed by the outrage they produce. While this is a legitimate concern, it would have much more weight if the cartoons had only attacked one religion, thus providing a basis for libel charges. However, Charlie does not pull any punches, mocking Christianity and Judaism along with Islam. By not showing bias against one particular religion, Charlie merely put up a mirror to show, admittedly from a far-left perspective, the flaws in each religion as they see it. A magazine like Charlie Hebdo typically thrives from dissent, as they are similar to Justin Bieber and Alex Rodriguez in that people love to hate them, but a group of terrorists decided that 12 people deserved to lose their lives over a series of cartoons.
The irony remains that the terrorists’ efforts may have backfired, as they have shifted the global spotlight onto Charlie and necessitated the colossal uptick in production of the Charlie Hebdo magazines from the normal 60,000 to over seven million copies of the first issue since the attack. That means Charlie made more than 21 million Euros (roughly $25 million) in the last two weeks.
While the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the events surrounding it in Paris are indeed tragic, it is important to put this attack into context. The perpetrators were all French citizens who were radicalized at home; this corresponds with a disturbing trend in Europe of Muslim and immigrant communities becoming religiously radicalized by a lack of socio-economic integration into their adopted countries. Muslims and immigrants across Europe continue to face endemic poverty and discrimination by native Europeans; however, the American press under-reports these aspects of European society, ignoring a crucial aspect of the Charlie Hebdo attack. Many countries in Western Europe, including France, the United Kingdom, and Germany, who have recently opened themselves to immigration from areas such as the Middle East, parts of Africa, and South Asia, have experienced major bouts of xenophobia and racism from segments of their native populations. On the same week of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the German anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant protest group PEGIDA staged large demonstrations across Germany, demanding the expulsion of immigrants and a return to traditional, “untainted” Judeo-Christian values. However, these events garnered little attention in the press compared to the massacre in France that occurred simultaneously, even though this continued hostility towards “non-native” cultures in Europe is perhaps the most direct cause of Islamic and anti-Western terrorism seen in Europe today.
These types of attacks, however, committed by alienated Muslims or foreigners, are a smaller threat to the United States than they are to Europe. As a historical nation of immigrants, American society accepts foreign cultures and peoples relatively easily into its midst, and, although exceptions exist, American Muslims are far better integrated into our culture than they are in Europe.
It is also important to remember that the Charlie Hebdo massacre, although brutal and inhumane, is an extremely small event compared to the many acts of terrorism that occur across the world on a daily basis. In Nigeria, for example, the sadistic insurgent group Boko Haram massacred over 150 people in a raid on the town of Baga, also on the same week of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, however this incident and countless others have also been under-reported and forgotten by the international community. Dozens die in war-torn nations such as Syria and the Central African Republic every day, and yet these conflicts and deaths rarely make headlines. Even a terrorist attack on a school in Pakistan, which killed a shocking 141 children, received far less attention than the Paris attack, even though the death toll was eight times as high. The lack of reporting, coverage, and general awareness of these events indicates a dangerously Eurocentric perspective from the media.
Not only is the subject of the freedom of press significant around the world, but also in our tight-knit community. At the beginning of January, the Willis Hall Herald’s third issue was pulled from campus. The controversy over publishing an article covering a sensitive topic caused the issue to be withdrawn. However, according to the theory of freedom of press, the staff had every right to address the topic, and it would have been un-journalistic to have swept the matter under the rug.
One of the primary reasons for its removal was Visitors’ Day. While from an administrative point of view, the publications may have persuaded visitors to look elsewhere for their child’s education, do such issues not happen elsewhere? Every high school has honor issues. These issues need to be addressed in order to teach others of the consequences. It is important to admit to one’s wrongdoings, and to learn and move on from mistakes.
Charlie Hebdo published many controversial cartoons that eventually led to the massacre of the editorial staff. Such extreme responses are not expected from readers, and there are other ways to address publications that are viewed as offensive. For instance, letters to the editor is way in which one can express one’s feelings without causing harm. In such case, the staff can review the response, and discuss whether they should publish such controversial topics just because they have the right. However, the staff has to keep in mind that an editorial should not create indifferent responses. Not everyone can be pleased by one opinion on a controversial issue.
Therefore, even though the third issue was withdrawn due to negative views, the staff will continue to produce editorials that can produce different emotional responses, just like Charlie Hebdo published an issue of cartoons following the massacre. Sometimes there are few incidents that happen in the community, and sometimes there are extreme occurrences. This includes all that is positive and negative. However, no matter the case, the community has every right to know what is happening, and a journalism staff has an obligation to inform them. While we will not go as far as to attack someone’s religion, we will not be kept quiet on big matters concerning our community.
Chloe Hunt '21 (Editor-in-Chief)