Should there be limits to freedom of speech?

Posted on 13. February 2015

by Darija Maric

darija-maricOn January 7, 2015, Paris stood still. At 11 o’clock in the morning, two men forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, one of France’s major satirical newspapers, and shot down the maintenance worker and 11 other people.

When we saw it on the news, we were all shocked. Twelve people losing their lives because they wrote or drew something someone did not like? Or did not find respectful? What is this world turning into? What is Europe turning into? What caused this? Could we prevent it from happening again?

Those were the questions I heard most from the people around me. The day after the shootings, I talked with some of my friends about what had happened. I have to warn you; my friends all have very different backgrounds, and so, very different opinions.

“Those terrorists!” Dejan yelled. He is one of those right wing guys who are very outspoken about their views. He continued: “And to think that they were born in France! They spent all their lives there and yet… yet they killed off those people just because they did not like some of their cartoons!”

“But you must admit”, Maja interrupted, “that these cartoons were disrespectful. To be clear, I am not saying what they did was right or justified in any way. I am just saying that if we are organising demonstrations against violence and marching for peace and tolerance, then maybe we should set an example by respecting the religious beliefs of others”. Maja is one of those calm, balanced people who rarely raise their voice and always seem like they are on top of the issue.

Her statement ticked Dejan off. “Well, those people live in secular states! Freedom of speech is guaranteed. And what the people from Charlie Hebdo were publishing was not against French law. You cannot expect to come to a foreign country and impose your laws on the people living there! You are to adapt to them and their way of life, not the other way around!”

“There are limitations to freedom of speech. It is not absolute and since there have been so many religiously motivated conflicts lately, we should all try to calm down and just show respect for each other. Muslim, Christian or Jewish, we are all Europeans and we should not allow to be divided and segregated… and this is exactly what is happening now and will continue to happen if we do not set some boundaries for what gets to be published or said in public… we cannot just let one religious group be offended!” Maja, as usual, held her ground.

“But that was not the case”, intervened Milos, who had been a silent listener and observer until then. “Everyone was mocked – Christians, Jews, different local groups, politicians… Charlie Hebdo was not discriminating anyone – they just made fun of everything and everyone. But yet, were killed by Muslims, right?” His demeanour was confident, but I could see his eyes scanning all of our faces, searching for a sign that he had hit the spot.

“By extremists”, I corrected him. “It is very dangerous to condemn a whole community for something that was the work of a few. And we would also be hypocrites if we would condemn the massacre but would not raise our voices against Muslims being threatened or even physically attacked throughout Europe. They are also citizens of our countries and they have the same rights as everyone else.”

“So one should not retaliate, but should allow to be bullied into accepting someone else’s values? We should all be shaped by fear?” Dejan raised his voice, in an attempt to increase the dramatic effect of his words. “Are you saying we should let outsiders dictate what is allowed and what not on our own soil? To tell us what we can say and what not? Or maybe we should just close our borders and stop them from coming?”

There it is. That one sentence that always somehow emerges. The sentence that shows that no matter how multicultural, democratic or tolerant our society has become, in the minds of a number of people there is still that unspoken division – ‘us’ and ‘them’; the ones who came from somewhere and the ones who were there first. And even if the person is born and raised in a European country, even if he or she speaks the language perfectly and has never done anything wrong – when something like this happens that person will be seen as a foreigner, as a stranger and a potential threat. And that says a lot about us. Or at least some of us.

As someone with a refugee background, I always feel slightly shaken up by such arguments. “No, that is not what I am saying”, I answered. ‘I believe in the ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ principle. Satire has existed for centuries and has always been a powerful tool for criticising that which we consider to be wrong in society. I consider the right to freedom of speech, as well as all the other human rights and freedoms, as some of the greatest achievements of humankind. On the other hand, I also believe that if we want our culture and traditions to be respected, we have to respect other world views as well. And that should be done because we believe it is the right thing to do, not because we are afraid of the consequences. In other words, if a certain group of people felt that the writers, editors and cartoonists working at Charlie Hebdo were disrespecting their religious beliefs, they could have expressed these views and protest in a pacific, democratic way. Because that is what Europe should be about; democracy, human rights and tolerance. And most importantly, respect for human life. Those are the values we should all share, regardless of our religious or cultural background.”

Dejan, Maja, Milos and me kept on debating, finally realising that we would never fully agree on this issue – just like we disagree on many other issues. But it is important that everyone feels free to express their opinion without fear of consequences. We should make an effort to understand each other and to show mutual respect. That is why we need to keep debating; in a small cafe somewhere in Serbia, in the headquarters of a magazine in Paris, or anywhere else in the world.