Responsible free speech

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Alice Millerchip '15

 

Alice Millerchip '15
Alice Millerchip ’15

With rights come responsibilities. And with freedom of speech, we have the responsibility to not fuel the flames of prejudice and violence – on all sides of political and religious opinion.
Recent events, including the release of American comedy film The Interview and the shooting of journalists at Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine in France, evoked discussion about our rights of expression.
The American and French Presidents responded to the events by defending freedom of speech, a fundamental right in a democratic society. The government and courts must preserve this right. But as citizens, we should be mindful of the potential repercussions of presenting information that taunts other regimes, religions, or people.
President Obama defended Sony’s decision to proceed with showing The Interview, despite the cyber attacks. The hackers, who were part of a group that calls itself the “Guardians of Peace,” threatened a “Christmas gift” or terrorist attack to dissuade people from attending film screenings, according to theverge.com.
“As the president made clear, we are a country that believes in free speech, and the right of artistic expression,” White House spokesman Mr. Eric Schultz said in a statement, according to reuters.com. “The decision made by Sony and participating theaters allows people to make their own choices about the film, and we welcome that outcome.”
But what happens when these outcomes deepen the prejudice of American viewers toward Koreans and vice versa? What happens if they lead to acts of violence against innocent people? Clearly the North Korean regime is despicable and has no regard for basic rights of its people. But was it really necessary to depict the killing of Kim Jong-un to a melodic version of Katy Perry’s Firework? This will doubtlessly win easy laughs in American movie theaters, but is highly offensive to North Koreans. How would Israel (and the American press) react if Benjamin Netanyahu was the target–or indeed Barack Obama? In some respects, it is naïve to be surprised by the reaction of the North Koreans and the retaliations.
Convent of the Sacred Heart Upper School History Teacher and Constitutional Law Teacher Mrs. Anne De Sutter explains that the inherent problem is that we simply do not live in a world of mutual understanding.
“Obama’s defense of freedom of speech illustrates a major divide between East and West. While they make sense to us, his comments must have been incomprehensible to eastern, collectivist societies that value conformity and obedience over individual expression. It also illustrates American naiveté to expect that non-Western countries will respect our ideas regarding freedom of expression,” Mrs. De Sutter said.
French citizens demonstrate their solidarity following last week's terrorist attacks in Paris.  Courtesy of theblaze.com
French citizens demonstrate their solidarity following last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris.
Courtesy of theblaze.com

Similarly, Charlie Hebdo has mocked Islam for many years through its satirical cartoons. Racial and religious tensions are high in France and there is a growing amount of Islamophobia. The cartoons are offensive to many Muslims, not just the extremists. They also fan the flames of religious bigotry.
In 2012, the publication released a series of crude cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. These acts evoked a disapproving response from the Foreign Minister of France, Mr. Laurent Fabius.
“Strong emotions have been awakened in many Muslim countries. Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?” Mr. Fabius said according to The New York Times.
Maybe this is the question we should ask ourselves. People may argue that right triumphs over responsibility and we must stand up for our right to publish anything, regardless of its content. But when content becomes perhaps excessively offensive, although of course we have the right to spread it, should we? Especially if artistic choice allows us to convey the same message in a less disrespectful manner?
Free speech is an ideal of democratic nations like the United States and France but the recent events have brought into question just how much temperance and respect we should use in practicing this right.
The shooting ellicited strong reactions, including a viral #jesuischarlie movement and rallies on the streets of France. These acts are important because they show that as a democratic people, we will not back down. We will not allow terrorists to intimidate us or compromise our freedom of speech, and rightly so.
But in using this freedom of speech to convey important messages, we must question if our case is breaching basic civility, as the spokeswoman of the Paris-based Collective Against Islamophobia in France, Ms.Elsa Ray suggested when commenting on Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons of Muhammed. 
“The freedom of expression may be guaranteed by the French Constitution, but there is a limit when it goes too far and turns into hatred, and stigmatization,” Ms. Ray said according to The New York Times.  
Both Sony’s The Interview and Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons took serious issues and employed satire, a long established and legitimate form of artistic expression, to highlight them. But did they exercise responsible judgement in their portrayals or did they go too far? There is no absolute right or wrong on this so we must each reach our own opinion, which we are privileged to be able to to do in a free society.
-Alice Millerchip, Content Editor