Charlie Hebdo’s Rights and Wrongs

DAVOS – In the wake of the terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, declarations of “Je suis Charlie” have echoed worldwide. And, indeed, Charlie Hebdo should be free to publish what it likes, without fear of violence, as long as it does not directly incite violence itself. But does that mean that other news outlets and individuals should republish it?

To be sure, freedom of expression should almost never be repressed, a point that the United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes emphasized in a dissenting opinion in a case concerning the US Constitution’s guarantee of free speech. “[W]e should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death,” he wrote, “unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.”

From this perspective, I would have marched with the millions who gathered in Paris, proclaiming “Je suis Charlie.” And I fully understand the desire to purchase the subsequent issue of Charlie Hebdo, published – with bravery and determination – a week after the attack. People not just in France, but around the world, want to show their solidarity with the victims and support the fundamental principle of free speech.

But supporting Charlie Hebdo’s right to express whatever message it chooses does not necessarily imply support for its portrayals of the Prophet Mohammed or a willingness to participate in their dissemination. Support for the principle does not demand endorsement of the practice.