Charlie Hebdo and the Right to Free Speech


The horrific attack on the staff of the publication Charlie Hebdo in Paris did not occur in a vacuum; it was one of a series, albeit amongst the worst, of attacks on free speech. From the beheading of journalists to the hack on Sony, terrorists are trying to silence any voice that disagrees with their own. In such a perilous environment, it is essential that free speech be protected, not questioned. President Obama criticized Sony’s decision (or that of its distributors) to not show the movie “The Interview” when the group behind the hack threatened violence if the movie were released. The President and others called the decision “cowardly” and publicly worried about self-censorship in the face of intimidation. When the movie was released to a small number of independent theaters and online, Americans and all champions of free speech applauded with victory.

We were lucky. No lives were lost. No one had reason to question Sony’s “judgment” in releasing the movie, or point to their provocation of an attack. The staff of Charlie Hebdo was not so fortunate. They lost their lives, and although no one in a democracy is denying their right to free speech, even those who recognize the slaughter as a heinous act are questioning their “judgment” in “provoking” the Muslim community with offensive content.


Yet offensive language and content is exactly what the Constitution guarantees us the right to express. Popular and inoffensive speech rarely needs to be defended. It is the provocative, non-mainstream and possibly offensive speech that the Constitution guarantees the right to be said. Put another way: the Constitution does not guarantee a right not to be offended, but it does guarantee a right to offend.

Unfortunately, laws can be used to limit free speech rather than to defend it. Blasphemy laws, which make any form of religious criticism illegal, are not enforceable in the U.S. but are alive and well in other parts of the world (notably: Saudi Arabia has just sentenced a blogger to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes of flogging for blasphemy). Speech Codes have proliferated on college campuses, restricting speech on the basis of content and limiting offensive language as well as the time, place and manner of speech. Clearly lacking Constitutional muster off-campus, these codes have passed scrutiny in the guise of creating a non-threatening and inoffensive educational environment.


The people of France, and indeed the world, have rallied behind Charlie Hebdo and the cause of freedom of speech. They gather, holding up pens to symbolize that the pen is mightier than the sword. But swords, guns and even pens notwithstanding, perhaps the most insidious form of attack on free speech is fear: fear of repercussion, fear of reprisal, fear of violence. If the “judgment” of using provocative material is questioned, if offensive language is deemed hate speech, and if societies stop protecting what we find uncomfortable, then we are in a very difficult and unfortunate position.

If you believe that your free speech rights are being violated, contact the lawyers at Pak & McRae Law, LLC for a legal evaluation of your case.

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Pak & McRae Law

At Pak and McRae Law, LLC we provide straightforward, sincere criminal defense for local, state, and federal matters. Our team includes a former Assistant District Attorney, so we understand how prosecutors approach cases and will use those insights to benefit your case.

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