Following the horrific attacks at the Charlie Hebdo offices, in which Islamic terrorists executed journalists who published satirical cartoons critical of Islam, the West reacted with a widespread show of solidarity.
A Twitter hashtag, #JeSuisCharlie now is the most tweeted of all time and signified that, no matter how one feels about radical Islam, all can agree that speech should be supported and protected. Sunday’s “unity rally” in Paris, with a record-setting 3.7 million people in attendance, and dozens of world leaders marching together, overflowed with messages in support of free speech.
But the uncomfortable sleeper issue few wish to discuss is that, for all the images of photogenic Europeans on street corners holding “Je Suis Charlie” signs, or of Angela Merkel and David Cameron huddled together, Europe long ago abandoned any pretense as being a bastion of free speech.
The birthplace of the Enlightenment began to allow leftist notions of what is acceptable speech to dictate what is permissible speech.
Many, if not most, of the world leaders on the rally’s front lines hail from nations only too willing to criminalize expression, including the prime minister of Turkey, a nation leading the world in journalist imprisonment.
The irony is overwhelming.
And, only days later, liberals in the United States already are beginning to backpedal, noting civilized speech has “limits” and must be used “responsibly,” failing to realize that placing restrictions on free speech is, well, no free speech at all.
Reflecting on the tragedy, David Cameron reassured that Britain will “never give up” on freedom of speech — a curious remark, considering the United Kingdom boasts, for instance, the Public Order Act, a dangerous law banning “abusive” speech, which critics say has strangled free speech. And, after experiencing the recent shutdown of an abortion debate at Oxford, The Spectator’s Brendan O’Neill writes of the “Stepford students” in elite British universities who “are far more interested in shutting debate down than opening it up.” One of the female protestors defended the debate’s cancellation, saying: “The idea that in a free society absolutely everything should be open to debate has a detrimental effect on marginalized groups.”
One wonders if she nonetheless hoisted a fashionable “Je Suis Charlie” sign this weekend.
’Tis not only the United Kingdom. Most of Western Europe is now planted thick with laws restricting all manner of offensive speech. In Sweden, it will soon be illegal to criticize illegal immigration, and a pastor was imprisoned for one month over a sermon against homosexuality, prompting the Slovak Interior Minister to rebuke: “In Europe, people are starting to be jailed for saying what they think.” France, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland have alarming laws regulating what can and cannot be uttered. Even Canada has similar legislation.
America is beginning to resemble its brethren. Last March, for instance, a feminist-studies professor at University of California forcibly snatched a sign out of a pro-life demonstrator’s arms, shoved her and described the signs as “hate speech.”
Hundreds of students supported the professor in a petition. Meanwhile, college campuses are Ground Zero for the assault on free speech. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education finds that 58 percent of American universities have speech codes prohibiting or penalizing constitutionally protected speech, while the Obama administration pressures campuses to use overly broad definitions of verbal sexual harassment.
Perhaps most troubling is an October 2014 poll finding a majority of Democrats support “hate speech” laws. How is it many of same individuals claiming this week to champion free speech support the ridiculous notion of hate speech?
The West must make up its mind. Either it upholds free speech across the board or it abandons our most fundamental value and capitulates to a pattern of brutal censorship and inconsistent, irrational application.
We either practice #JeSuisCharlie or we do not.
Is the West, is America, is France itself, the land of Voltaire and he who is (although apocryphally) credited as proclaiming: “I disapprove of what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it” truly willing to stand by this noble ideal?
Scaling back, and standing athwart, the left’s assaults on speech would be a good place to start.
A.J. Delgado is a Miami-based writer and lawyer. She writes about politics and culture.