Freedom of speech- and it’s ‘limitations’

The terrorist attack against ‘Charlie Hebdo’ magazine where twelve people have been murdered brought back freedom of speech to public debate in France and all over the world.

Freedom of speech is a recurrent topic in France which always shows up after some controversial publications or jokes made by humorists. Because of the terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo magazine, this topic focuses the attention in the country once again. The most frequent questions currently brought to the public debate are : Can welaugh at everything? Can we make fun of religions? Are there any limitations to freedom of speech? Everybody has his own opinion about how to deal with it. Moreover, this debate may generate tensions among different communities living in France. For this reason, I believe it’s important to firstly refer to the law to get an idea of this concept. 

For most democratic countries, freedom of speech is a fundamental principle. The law defines it as the right offered to everyone to have freedom of opinion and to be able to share informations and ideas without any state control and without any border considerations. However, the law sets two main limitations to this right. First, defamation and insult are forbidden. Then, any talk inciting hate  especially racist, anti-semite or homophic talks are punished by the law. For exemple, a journalist couldn’t write that gay people had mental disabilities because it’s obviously homophobic.   

Regarding the use of the law, we notice that most of the time it is effective and well-done to deal with freedom of speech. But, there is one field where the question of freedom of speech becomes more sensitive and subjective to several interpretations. This field is humor.

Indeed, humor takes many different forms and targets different groups of people. Humor can be black, ironical or absurd. Thus, humor questions the limitations of freedom of speech set by the law. For example, some comedians use to exagerate racist speech or behavior in order to discredit it. In this case, context and meaning become more important than systematically refering to the law. We can tolerate talks using racist, homophobic or agressive rhetorics if the meaning is to denounce these ideas through humor. Charlie Hebdo, a weekly French satirical magazine, shows us perfectly how humor can become controversial when we are handling the principle of freedom of speech.

For those who don’t know this magazine, Charlie Hebdo is well-known for its critical point of view on the news. The magazine uses to publish caricatures of figures from various fields, ranging from politics to religions. It became sadly famous for the big waves of protests, mostly in arabic and muslims countries, set off by caricatures of the prophet Mahomet published by the magazine. People offended by these caricatures argued that the magazine couldn’t refer to freedom of speech to justify insulting caricatures toward muslim religion. Several organizations sued the magazine and after a long and eventful trial, Charlie Hebdo has been acquitted by a French court.

For once, French justice wisely underscored the most important point needed to understand the principle of freedom of speech. The decision of the court told us that we can make fun of religions but not of the believers. We can target ideas, ideologies, theories but not the people who are believing in it. It’s the only criteria which prevails when comes the time to talk about freedom of speech in the field of humor.

Personnaly, I fully agree with this approach of freedom of speech, even if I understand that people can be hurt by caricatures or talks. So, nowadays when I hear that Charlie Hebdo went too far hiding behind the pretext of humour, I can’t stand it anymore. In my opinion, Charlie Hebdo either you like it or not, either you find it is funny or not, hasn’t been attacked because it has overcome the limitations of freedom of speech. It is the victim of religious fanaticism, nothing else. And we should all keep this in mind.

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