Charlie Hebdo attack challenges satirical boundaries

On Jan. 7, two armed extremist Islamists forced their way into the offices of the satirical newspaper “Charlie Hebdo” in Paris. Shots were fired, killing 12 people and wounding 11.

The attack, which Al-Qaeda has taken responsibility for, was in response to numerous controversial publications made by the newspaper mocking the Islamic prophet Muhammad, whose depiction is prohibited in the Islamic religion.

This attack has brought up questions regarding the extent to which newspapers are entitled to their rights of free speech. “Charlie Hebdo” is a satirical weekly news magazine that is self-described as secular and atheist. The purpose of satire is to provide criticism with the intentions of suggesting change through humor. Statesman believes that, satirical or not, newspapers should have boundaries in terms of the content that they publish, but the challenge is where exactly to draw that line—and who draws it.

The satire, while able to elicit a reaction, was unsuccessful as attention was not drawn towards the message that the magazine was attempting to propose, but instead, the attack that came in response. Statesman believes that because the debate is not revolving around “Charlie Hebdo” content, the article failed to accomplish the goals of satire and was moreover offensive.

France has laws against hate, racism and discrimination, as well as laws against supporting or justifying terrorism. However, the “New York Times” made a point to recognize that there seemed to be a double standard in France’s lack of law enforcement for cartoonists who deliberately insult religion, but aggressive enforcement for those who reacted by applauding terrorists. To clarify, the “New York Times” is in no way challenging France’s enforcement of the law but their unequal enforcement of both laws. Nonetheless, Statesman believes that, just as all laws must be followed by citizens, all laws must be enforced the same in a legal and equal manner.

Regardless of how offensive printed material may be, a terrorist attack is never justified—no matter how provoked it may be, as goes the same for murder. Anyone who commits such a violent crime must be punished to the fullest extent of the law. However, Statesman believes that a group of nearly two billion practicing Muslims should not have to suffer the stigma for the actions of two extremists exploiting the name of a religion.

As a newspaper that holds itself to a high journalistic standard, Statesman is undoubtedly and unanimously in support of our American rights to freedom of speech and press. However, this is not an absolute freedom, as it does not protect our right to publish defamation, profanity and content which may incite immediate violence or unlawful activity. As was ruled in the 1969 case of Brandenburg v. Ohio, the latter may be legally censored by the government and is considered a clear limitation to freedom of speech. Furthermore, in the 1973 case of Miller v. California, it was ruled that the content must be offensive to an average citizen applying “contemporary community standards” and have no redeeming “literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” to be considered unlawful.

While it is debatable whether or not “Charlie Hebdo” content would be considered lawful in light of our free speech rights, the news magazine may have crossed the legal line in its publication of needlessly provocative cartoons in terms of French law. Ultimately, Statesman believes that the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable published content is best determined by the ruling law of a nation, not a fear of attack or one person’s preferences, views or beliefs.