In France, Fuzziness on Free Speech
WASHINGTON -- I would have thought the French had a better sense of irony.
One day they are marching in defiant support of offensive speech. The next they are threatening to prosecute people for it.
Dieudonne M'bala M'bala, a distinctly unfunny and anti-Semitic comedian, was arrested and charged with "incitement of terrorism" after a Facebook post that seemed to express sympathy for the gunman who killed four people at a Paris kosher supermarket.
Dieudonne's offense was writing, "I feel like Charlie Coulibaly," a mash-up of Charlie Hebdo and Amedy Coulibaly, the supermarket killer. The New York Times reported that as many as 100 people are under investigation by French officials for making or posting comments that support or try to justify terrorism.
Still, this is not so much a case of rank hypocrisy as an illustration of the intellectual and emotional complexity of the debate over what should happen when free speech collides with religious sensibilities or common decency.
It is easy, in the aftermath of the horrific killings, to announce, "Je suis Charlie." Indeed, it is appropriate. When writers and artists are murdered for expressing themselves, standing with them is the right response. So is reproducing their work. Taking the risk of offending readers and exposing employees to danger is not an easy choice, but the newspaper editors who reprinted the Charlie Hebdo cartoons made the correct decision.
But there is nothing especially attractive or heroic about giving gratuitous insult, which seems to have been the basic business of Charlie Hebdo. The magazine was, and remains, a cross-denominational offender, aiming its juvenile barbs at any and all religions.
Its goal -- and it no doubt succeeded -- was to transgress and provoke, as with cartoons that showed Muhammad naked. Penis drawings were a specialty, whether of the prophet or the French president.
The cover of the post-massacre issue, with its depiction of Muhammad shedding a tear, was uncharacteristically tasteful. Inside, however, was what The Independent of Britain described as "a festival of bad taste, including a cartoon of a masturbating nun and the Pope dressed as a mafia boss."
Of course, Charlie Hebdo should have the right to print whatever offensive product it wants, without fear of either violence or government interference. That is different from saying we should admire the magazine for it.
But to support the free speech rights of Charlie Hebdo, albeit with reservations, should also be to back the freedom of others, like Dieudonne, to engage in offensive speech.
I am an unlikely defender of Dieudonne, with his barely disguised "Heil Hitler" salute and his even-less-disguised anti-Semitic "jokes." But Dieudonne has a point in writing, "I am looked upon as if I were Amedy Coulibaly, when I am no different from Charlie."
Granted, France is not the United States. Granted, actually, that the United States has its own problems tolerating offensive speech. The New York Times' David Brooks made an important point about intolerance from the left on college campuses against speech that fails to toe the politically correct line.
As to France, the country has different laws; a different history, including the murder of its Jews; and a different present, including a large, discontented Muslim population. This has led it to make different choices about how much offensive speech to tolerate.
French law makes an exquisitely fuzzy distinction between speech that insults a religion generally and speech that provokes "discrimination, hatred or violence" based on, among other things, religion. A new law also increases penalties for "apologie du terrorisme," condoning terrorism.
The New Yorker's Alexander Stille offered an example of the difference between what is permitted and what is criminal: Actress Brigitte Bardot was convicted in 2006 for having written, about Muslims in France, "We are tired of being led around by the nose by this population that is destroying our country," while writer Michel Houellebecq was acquitted of having called Islam "the stupidest religion."
A democratic society ought to be able to tolerate both sets of statements.
"That's the debate that we have had with our American friends for some time because of your First Amendment," French ambassador to the United States Gerard Araud, told NPR's Melissa Block. "In France, the speech is free, but if it could lead either to a crime or if it could be seen as libel, which is, of course, under the control of the judge, it's to the judge to decide whether the red lines have been crossed."
Up to the judge? What would Charlie say?
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