Matter of expression

Despite our many contradictions, free speech still matters

I’m not interested in joining debates over whether Charlie Hebdo, the Paris satire newspaper where 10 staffers and two policemen were killed by religious extremists last week, produced racist or offensive material. These conversations are important, of course. Hell, they’re necessary in a society where most speech—even racist, homophobic vitriol—is protected. But my immediate response to the massacre has been to grieve, and to worry: These people were killed for nothing more than the words and images they published. As a writer, I find solidarity that our Western world values free expression. I’m glad I’m not alone.

Throughout the United States, the aftermath of the attacks has brought about countless affirmations on the importance of our First Amendment. But we often forget that, in this Western world, free speech hasn’t been around for more than a few centuries. Even today, while we consider it a basic human right, it flourishes and wilts depending on cultural and historical contexts. It may be unfair, for example, to celebrate Charlie Hebdo’s provocative drawings of Muhammad without also mentioning France’s troubling burqa ban.

Even in this country, we have our own odd narrative regarding drawing Muhammad. In 2010, the comedy show South Park was to air an episode involving the Muslim prophet as a central character. But after a radical group called Revolution Muslim posted a warning online that the show’s creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone risked death if the episode ran, the cable TV network Comedy Central caved, refusing to air it without censoring images of Muhammad.

In response, a freelance cartoonist for Seattle Weekly named Molly Norris contributed artwork for an online campaign titled Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.

Norris’ drawing was rather innocuous—it involved inanimate objects such as a teacup and spool of thread claiming to be Muhammad—but group members began posting increasingly offensive images of the Muslim prophet. She did her best to distance herself from the movement, but it was too late: That summer, the American-Yemeni Al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki placed the Seattle cartoonist on a kill list. American officials confirmed the severity of this threat, and Norris was forced to change her name and go into hiding under FBI protection.

Over the past decade, this nation has gained notoriety for desecrating the rights we claim to protect. We send drones to kill U.S. citizens without trial. We detain and torture men for 13 years, never charging them with a crime, and then send the whistleblowers of these injustices to prison. And yet here we are, fighting so hard for something as absurd as drawing the likeness of a long-dead prophet.

I’d like to think the reason for this is that we cannot effectively fight society’s injustices without that most basic right of free speech. If that’s the case, let us all one day wield that right freely.