Are you Charlie? The limits of free speech

On the morning of 7 January 2015 two Islamist terrorists armed with assault rifles forced their way into the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France. The gunmen killed ten people, including two police officers, shouting the name of Allah hu-Akbar.

It was shocking news. Many around the world responded with the slogan “I am Charlie.” French schools held a minute of silence for the victims of the attack and encouraged their students to show their support for freedom of speech.

Nothing can justify this unspeakable carnage. But does this mean that we are all Charlie? Charlie Hebdo had a controversial history of taking freedom of speech to its limits and using this to ridicule many of the world’s religions. In the past decade the newspaper has published images of Muhammad kissing a man and Muhammad naked except for a star covering his behind. (You can find these images and more through a quick Google search.)

In quite a few French schools Muslim students refused to participate in the minute of silence and challenged the pressure to join in the “I am Charlie” movement. They pointed out that so many innocent people across the world have been killed through terrorism and violence and questioned why the staff at Charlie Hebdo had been selected for special commemoration.

To ask if you are Charlie is to ask where you stand on freedom of speech.  

The controversy in France has brought in to sharp focus the dialectic between freedom of speech and the acceptance of differences that is the heart of community living. Do we support all forms of free expression, even when it is plainly offensive to those with whom we share our school, our town, or our country? These questions are becoming pressing as European countries attempt to absorb large numbers of mainly Muslim immigrants from North Africa. But these issues are also pressing in the US, as our school population becomes increasingly diverse both in religion and in ethnicity.

If you were a French school principal, would you have asked  your students to participate in the minute of silence in support of Charlie Hebdo? Imagine that your campus is 5 to 10 percent Muslim (the estimated percentage of the Muslim population in France) for whom any depiction the Prophet Muhammad is blasphemy. They have told you that they are deeply offended by the images published by Charlie Hebdo.

Should there be limits to freedom of speech in your school? We don’t pretend these questions are easy. We welcome your comments on our Facebook page.