Carnage in Paris: how far free speech?

Terrorist attacks in Paris, one on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, remind us of the tectonic clash between libertarian western values and extremist Islam.

France has a long tradition of placing freedom of thought and speech centre stage in its social affairs. The celebrated eighteenth century writer Voltaire frequently attacked the Catholic Church and religious dogma, as well as many other facets of French life, despite the personal risk posed by the strict censorship laws of his day. Although often but incorrectly quoted as saying “Sir, I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, the aphorism is very much in keeping with the spirit of his writings. It’s reputed that on his deathbed in 1778, eleven years before the Revolution swept aside the old order for good, he refused a priest’s request to renounce Satan by replying ”Now is not the time for making new enemies.”

Charlie Hebdo is another in this long line of French free thinkers, with a not insignificant circulation of sixty thousand, but bears little comparison to satirical magazines in the US or the UK. Private Eye, for example, has stirred up plenty of controversy in its time, but has steered clear of the types of cartoons that cause such offence to so many, including Christians as well as Muslims.

So how far should free speech go? It obviously doesn’t extend to areas such as libel or slander, where there are laws in place to protect us from false allegations. Rather the issue is about ideas in general, systems of thought and belief, the institutional, political and religious frameworks that define our lives. Should we place certain topics off limits?

For what it’s worth, my opinion is no. It’s exactly four hundred years since Galileo was investigated by the Roman Inquisition for advocating the ideas of Copernicus, namely that the sun was the centre of the planetary system rather than the earth, a suggestion abhorrent to the religious establishment. Galileo was tried by the Holy Office, found “vehemently suspect of heresy”, and forced to recant. He spent the remaining twenty-seven years of his life under house arrest. But Galileo and Copernicus were right, the interpreters of the scriptures were wrong. Where would we be if uncomfortable, even offensive, ideas were suppressed to favour one part of society over another?

If you’re offended by magazines like Charlie Hebdo, don’t buy them. But don’t murder people for expressing their views.