World Views on Freedom of Speech

Response to this tragedy has drawn questions and comments about freedom of speech from cartoonists to world leaders, from scholars to op-ed journalists.

A child holding a pencil during a Charlie Hebdo support march.

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The massacre at the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo put the centuries-old art of political cartooning on front pages around the world. The Post — with roots in Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette — ran the country’s first political cartoon, urging the colonies to unite against British Rule. “Join, or Die” became a symbol of colonial freedom during the American Revolutionary War.


The French magazine Charlie Hebdo returned to newsstands this week after the attack on its Paris headquarters left 12 people dead on January 7 — including its editor, five staff cartoonists, and two police officers. Response to this tragedy has drawn questions and comments about freedom of speech from cartoonists to world leaders, from scholars to op-ed journalists. A collection below:

U.S. Muslims — In Defense of Free Speech

The Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, denounced the deadly attack on the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. Nihad Awad, national executive director of CAIR, said in a statement:

We strongly condemn this brutal and cowardly attack and reiterate our repudiation of any such assault on freedom of speech, even speech that mocks faiths and religious figures. The proper response to such attacks on the freedoms we hold dear is not to vilify any faith, but instead to marginalize extremists of all backgrounds who seek to stifle freedom and to create or widen societal divisions.

Cartoonists Speak Out — Don’t Give In to Terrorists

The attack on Charlie Hebdo ignited comment from prominent political cartoonists around the world — themselves threatened by extremists for satirizing them. In a recent interview, Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard urged the press not to succumb to intimidation: “I hope that the media world will not be scared. It’s very important not to be afraid.” Westergaard said. “I hope we will not give in. You must not surrender your very important freedom of speech.”

“My Right to Be Offended”

Satirist Karl Sharro, who blogs about the Middle East politics and culture, believes the “ability to test the boundaries of good taste, and even to be offensive, is essential to effective satire. But it’s now under threat.” Sharro argues that the assault on Charlie Hebdo is being represented by some as clash of cultures — “a Western one that champions freedom of speech and an Islamic one that does not tolerate offenses to its religious symbols.” But to Sharro, the real story is the steady erosion of “freedom of expression and the rise of the right to be offended.” Will the current culture of taking offense result in even more restrictions on what artists and writers can do and say?

Is Free Speech Dying in the Western World?

In an opinion piece for The Washington Post, Jonathan Turley, professor of public interest law at George Washington University, argues that the decline of free speech in the Western world was not from any single blow but rather “from thousands of paper cuts of well-intentioned exceptions designed to maintain social harmony.” He asks: Can modern society no longer tolerate intolerance?

Use It or Lose It!

In 2009, author Jytte Klausen, a scholar of politics who teaches at Brandeis University, came face to face with censorship when releasing her book The Cartoons that Shook the World containing illustrations of Muhammad — Ottoman prints, Danish cartoons, and a 19th-century engraving by Gustave Dore. “The danger was imagined,” Klausen says in a recent Time magazine article. “My book was censored,” the author says, urging media to not give in to fear. “We’re all next. Editors and producers across the Western world will now be asking themselves: ‘Can I print this?’ They are asking the wrong question,” Kalusen says, “It is a fallacy to think ‘that could be us.’ The readers of the world rely on them to say collectively: ‘Yes, we can.’”

Can’t We Just Agree to Disagree?

“The right to free speech may begin and end with the First Amendment, but there is a vast middle where our freedom of speech is protected by us — by our capacity to listen and accept that people disagree, often strongly, that there are fools, some of them columnists and elected officials and, yes, even reality-show patriarchs, that there are people who believe stupid, irrational, hateful things about other people and it’s OK to let those words in our ears sometimes without rolling out the guillotines.” — Jon Lovett, “The Culture of Shut Up”

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