A tough question: Just how 'JeSuisCharlie' to be?

Jan 14, 2015

By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendment

After one week, a tough question already is being asked: Just how "JeSuisCharlie" (I am Charlie) should we be?

At the outset, First Amendment advocates need to recognize the many layers of such a question — which originates not in reconsideration of recognition of those killed Jan. 7, but in the subsequent worldwide examination of the content of Charlie Hebdo magazine and other publications like it.

Does being critical of the magazine's biting satire, or suggesting it went beyond free speech into bigotry and deliberate provocation, offer any moral ground or comfort to the criminals who killed 12 people on at the Paris-based weekly magazine?

In many ways, the answer in the U.S. is easier — at least at the start. The 45 words of the First Amendment says the government "shall make no law" restraining our freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. No mention of political correctness, politeness or subjects or styles that legally are out of bounds.

Of course, in the U.S., we daily debate the application of our First Amendment freedoms, in a myriad of detailed ways — from Christmas carols in public schools, to words we can use on the Web, to how much and what we can donate to political candidates, and more. But we're so sanguine about our core rights that almost none of us can even name them. Since 1997, no more than 6 percent could name all five in the annual State of the First Amendment survey done by the Newseum Institute's First Amendment Center.

Only in the extremes, such as North Korea's objections to the silly movie "The Interview," do we seem to recognize how basic, how important and even how fragile those freedoms are. And with the gut-punch of the terror killings in France, we're suddenly viewing free expression through a worldwide looking glass — examining its values, deep impact and perhaps its limits.

Should publications show those controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad? Nothing in U.S. law prevents news outlets from doing so. So here, the issue is not "can" but "should." Most news outlets have chosen not to do so, by reports. In the last week, the controversy reached even to the pages (and offices) of The New York Times, which chose not to publish the images.

Times editor Dean Baquet was so angered by what he considered a particularly "nasty and arrogant" comment by a California university professor (Baquet's words) that he included an earthy obscenity in a Facebook post that also said mockingly: "Appreciate the self righteous second guessing without even considering there might be another point of view. Hope your students are more open minded."

Let's ask the "JeSuisCharlie" question in terms closer to home: Would we have the stomach for a "I am Uncle Sam"–style campaign if the catalyst were deaths at a U.S. magazine with a cover story of the week showing a racial caricature of African Americans with the N-word in large type overhead? Or at a Neo-Nazi publication mocking the Holocaust with a cartoon based on the death camps?

Some would say the response has to be "yes." In for a free speech penny, in for a dollar. Others may counter that there is nothing in the First Amendment that mandates — and at times, even shields — language that is deliberately intended simply to provoke and insult in a manner more akin to unprotected "fighting words" than the First Amendment ideal of dueling ideas.

There's also the pragmatic realities attendant to world reaction. The nonpartisan Reporters Without Borders group applauded world support afterCharlie Hebdo killings but said it was "appalled by the presence of leaders from countries where journalists and bloggers are systematically persecuted," such as Egypt, Russia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.

"We must demonstrate our solidarity with Charlie Hebdo without forgetting all the world's other Charlies," the group's secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. "...We must not let predators of press freedom spit on the graves ofCharlie Hebdo."

The TV network Al Jazeera America's program "Listening Post" examined these free-speech issues on Jan. 11, noting that it chose not to publish the original Muhammad cartoons in 2006 and again now because they would be "deeply offensive" to some of its viewers, not because it feared retaliation.

Near the end of the segment exploring the justifications for satire and blasphemy, host Richard Gizbert asked this free-speech question, worthy of thought: Were the killings in Paris an example of "a conflict between a relative few who use their mighty pens to provoke and offend, and a few others who use a gun to murder and silence ... is that a clash of civilizations or just a clash of an uncivilized few?"

The First Amendment — indeed the American ideal of democracy — rests on the concept that there is a free marketplace of ideas, where the open exchanges of views, however vile and regardless of being held by many or a few, will lead ultimately to the correct solutions for us all. There's also the theory that we need to be exposed to ideas and opinions of all kinds, even those we find repugnant, if only to be informed and motivated to argue against them.

A lasting legacy of those who died at Charlie Hebdo is a new, worldwide discussion over what we collectively find acceptable in that marketplace — hopefully, acceptable by our own judgment and not by that of either government bureaucrats or gun-toting thugs.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org.