We have long discussed the serious rollback on free speech in the West as countries like France and England profess support for free speech and the free press while prosecuting or investigating people for anti-religious speech. That conflicted message was evident today after French magazine Charlie Hebdo ran cartoons featuring Mohammad in its coverage over the deadly protests following the release of an anti-Muslim film in the United States. Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the French Council of Muslim Faith, described the cartoons as a “new Islamophobic act” while French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (left) warned “[t]here must be freedom of speech, but I am absolutely opposed to any provocation.”
The reference to “provocation” is a loaded term in France which routinely prosecutes people for insulting or criticizing religion. Newspapers and magazines in France have long used cartoons to satirize leaders and taboo subjects. In covering the protests this month, Mohammad is the natural figures for such commentary by cartoonists. Why should cartoonists avoid Mohammad as a character while satirizing every other religious leader. You cannot have free speech with the caveat that it is free so long as it is not provocative.
Notably, this same magazine’s office was burned after the publication of a cover that made fun of Islamic law. The cover showed a bearded and turbaned cartoon figure of the Prophet Mohammed saying, “100 lashes if you’re not dying of laughter.”
Fabius went out of his way to be free speech is not really free and unlimited in France: “This freedom is expressed within the confines of the law and under the control of the courts . . .”
He stressed “I am against all provocations, especially during a period as sensitive as this one. I do not see any usefulness in such provocation . . . There must be freedom of speech, but I am absolutely opposed to any provocation.” So that standard is you can speak unless what you say is going to provoke a group or individuals? We do not need free speech to protect popular or noncontroversial thoughts. The problem is not the speech but the response to the speech. How about saying “there must be freedom of speech, but I am absolutely opposed to any retaliation”? Or better yet, “there must be freedom of speech.” Period.