Is Speech Ever Free?

Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper, is making news once again. This time, it’s for riots that have been sparked in Niger in response to the cartoons published in the most recent issue of the magazine. The cartoons were meant to make a statement to terrorists letting them know they have not succeeded in silencing the magazine. But at what cost?

Part of the reason the shooting at Charlie Hebdo struck a nerve with the American public was because attacks on freedom of speech were fresh in our minds. It was only mid-December when movie theaters in the United States were threatened with a 9/11-style attack for showing the controversial movie “The Interview.” Sony pulled the movie, only to be rebuked by President Obama, and then released it online for everyone to see.

It didn’t matter to people that the movie itself was fairly stupid and tasteless. It mattered because our freedom of speech was threatened. In some ways, more people probably watched the movie because of the situation surrounding it.

We, as Americans, hold dearly to the belief that freedom of speech means we can say whatever we want whenever we want. It’s our right. But at the same time, people have had their entire careers destroyed for an off-color remark. Remember Donald Sterling?

The question becomes, is our speech ever truly free?

Social media provides an opportunity for people to say whatever they want, whenever they want and send it out to a large group of people. In a sense, everyone has been given a voice and an opportunity to be heard on a scale never before possible in human history. But in a lot of ways, it has also created a lot of unfiltered noise, and speech has become very cheap.

Although speech has become cheap, it still has a cost and will always have a cost. Many of our country’s early leaders were involved in newspapers. You could make the argument that the American Revolution occurred largely in part because of censorship of the newspapers. After all, who would a paper tax have the greatest effect on?

But let’s, for a moment, look at what freedom of speech is and isn’t. Freedom of speech is the ability for us to speak without fear of retribution from the government or law enforcement. There are varying levels of what can and cannot be said depending on your position. Government officials have different guidelines with different rules than journalists do, and both have different guidelines from the general public.

What freedom of speech does not necessarily protect you from is the actions of angry people. If you anger a large group of people, there is a chance they will retaliate. And while you may not get in trouble with the legal system, someone might do something rash and face the consequences for their actions later.

Please don’t misunderstand me. What happened at Charlie Hebdo was a tragedy. Anything involving the loss of human life is. And yes, I believe they have the right to publish the cartoons they do. But were they in the right to publish them? I am not sure. And now other people not connected to the magazine in any way are being killed again because of it.

The same thing goes with “The Interview.” Legally, they had every right to make and distribute the movie. But to depict an assassination attempt of a living world leader of one of the main rivals of the United States, no matter how much he’s disliked, may cause a few repercussions.

For a slightly different perspective, think of what would happen to someone who said something deeply offensive concerning racial issues or gender equality on a very public level. They may not necessarily face physical consequences in the U.S., but people are going to tear them apart and still claim to believe in freedom of speech.

There is a large difference between what can be said and what should be said. Think about what you say before you say it. Of course you have the right to say it. But that doesn’t mean you need to.

Charlie Hebdo: At a Glance

  • Charlie Hebdo: A French satirical newspaper printed weekly featuring cartoons, one of which spurred the attack.
  • What happened: Two masked gunmen, who identified themselves with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, killed 12 and wounded more in Charlie Hebdo’s offices on the morning of Jan. 11. These gunmen later killed a French National police officer before being tracked down and killed in a cofrontation with police days later.
  • Je suis Charlie: French for “I am Charlie.” This slogan, which trended on social media, became an endorsement for free speech and press.

Erik Johnson is a senior journalism major and columnist for Cedars. He competes on the track team. Follow him @walkingtheedge9.

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