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Free Speech for All

COPENHAGEN – The attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo was an assault on democracy, on freedom, and on the ideals that underpin all free societies. As we face the forces of extremism and terror, we must have the courage to speak up for those ideals and to safeguard the right to say what we believe. But we must also take care to respect the fact that others have the same right.

Charlie Hebdo is not the first publication to have suffered for publishing images which some perceived as offensive to Islam. In 2005, when I was Prime Minister of Denmark, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten provoked international controversy by publishing twelve sketches of the Prophet Muhammad. Some Muslims, in Denmark and abroad, accused Jyllands-Posten of blasphemy for publishing an image of the prophet. Others said that the images were an insult to Islam. There were calls for reprisals against the newspaper, against my government, and against Danish interests abroad.

Our response was founded on the principle that freedom of speech is one of the pillars on which democracy stands, and that if you undermine it, you undermine democracy itself. In free countries, every citizen has the right to say what he or she wants, believe what he or she wants, and criticize or mock what he or she wants – in writing, drawings, or any other form of peaceful expression. Every citizen also has the right to disagree with another’s opinions and to express that disagreement in a peaceful, legal manner.

In 2005, during the cartoons crisis, some commentators and politicians in the Muslim world claimed that the right to free speech had been abused and called for an apology and a condemnation of the cartoons, first from Jyllands-Posten, then from my government. To be sure, freedom of speech is a right that is best used wisely and responsibly. But we believed, and I still believe, that it would be neither wise nor responsible to attempt to limit it, and that the correct way to respond to a perceived insult is to present a counterargument, not to mount a terrorist attack. And, in democracies, you can always take the matter to court.