Censorship

It's Everybody Bomb Anybody Who Draws Mohammed Day in France!

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Reuters reports that a French publication has been bombed (and its website hacked) after it ran an issue that had been "guest-edited" by the prophet Mohammed:

The offices of a satirical French magazine were gutted on Wednesday by what its editor said was a firebomb, after it put an image of the Prophet Mohammed on its cover.

"The building is still standing. The problem is there's nothing left inside," Stephane Charbonnier, editor of the weekly Charlie Hebdo, told Europe 1 radio.

This week's edition shows a cartoon of Mohammed and a speech bubble with the words: "100 lashes if you don't die of laughter."

It has the headline "Charia Hebdo," in a reference to Muslim sharia law, and says Mohammed guest-edited the issue.

The editor of the mag is unapologetic and undaunted, even as his staff is scurrying for new digs:

"There is no question that we will give ground to the Islamists. We will continue."

And he's got the backing of at least one major political figure in the land of Voltaire, that oh-so-secular saint of free expression:

"We condemn with the greatest strength what is nothing other than an attack against a publication in a country that must embody freedom of expression," Jean-Francois Cope, head of the ruling conservative UMP party, told Europe 1 radio.

More here.

That sort of defense of a very basic human right is good to hear, though like most European nations, France hardly embodies freedom of expression. It criminalizes all sorts of "hurtful" language and in 2008, reports the FrumForum, courts there issued 350 sentences for racially charged insults. Just as it banned religious garb during the Revolution and has mostly cast a gimlet eye on public displays of religiosity, France bans burqas. Europe in general has been slow to learn a multi-part lesson: You should not only let immigrants move wherever they want, you should allow them to assimilate fully into society both through law and custom; sure, the host country or society or group will be changed too, but that's just another great up-side to immigration. And no one should be protected because their religion or heritage or feelings are hurt by words. Violence, it goes without saying, is a different matter, one easily covered under "fighting words" exceptions to freedom of speech and expression.

As awful as it is to see publications literally attacked because of cartoons, it's at least promising to see pushback against such unjustifiable terrorist actions. It would be better still to see French law encode actual protection of all speech.

The offending image is shown elsewhere on this page. Anyone who reads Reason regularly knows what I think of most editorial cartoons (Pulitzer Prize winners seems especially mentally and comically challenged): They're not worth the space they take up in the dreariest of publications. And I think that actually goes for most regular newspaper comic strips too: They generally stink on ice. But it's a better world where folks ranging from Gary Trudeau (whose inarguable decline in talent and insight and funniness has been on public display for decades) to, I don't know, the spawn of Mort Walker are gloriously free to draw whatever the hell they want without fear of being killed.

Reason has written a lot about the controversy over the Danish Mohammed cartoons, going so far as organizing an "Everybody Draw Mohammad Day" contest after the originator of the idea understandably backed away from it due to death threats and, at best, a lukewarm response from the community of artists and other media types. Following the advice of the FBI, Molly Norris eventually disappeared herself, a desperate move that speaks volumes about the need for constantly articulated defenses of free expression.

Here's a good starting point for understanding why we defend the rights of people to think and express what they feel. Especially but not limited to goddamn cartoons that are about as threatening as a cheese sandwich. The winners of our contest can be viewed here. Here's "a primer and a call to arms" on "Reason and Free Speech," penned by Matt Welch and myself for an event we held in New York last December to celebrate John Stagliano's exoneration on federal obscenity charges.

And in case you need any convincing that not just specific instances of free speech but the larger concept remains an endangered species, check out this piece from Bruce Crumley in Time.com. "Defending freedom of expression in the face of oppression is one thing," writes Crumley. "Insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can is infantile." Such a distinction neatly sidesteps who precisely gets to decide what's obnoxious and offensive and what counts as real oppression and infantile pushback. Crumley harbors a grudge against Charlie Hebdo because way back when it republished "the infamous" and "just plain lame" Danish Mohammed cartoons that led to death threats and physical attacks. Before the ruins of the Charlie Hebdo offices had stopped smoldering, Crumley had already gotten to the heart of the matter: "Apart from unconvincing claims of exercising free speech in Western nations where that right no longer needs to be proved," he sniffs, "it's unclear what the objectives of the caricatures were other than to offend Muslims—and provoke hysteria among extremists."

That's a bizarre thing to write in the wake of a firebombing of a newspaper whose crime was being infantile and unfunny. It's bizarre too that Crumley himself notes that free expression still has a ways to go in France and elsewhere, yet it no longer needs to be proved. Unconvincing? Sure. Incoherent? You bet. But it's a telling mental construction that should remind all of us why we need to stand up for free speech always and everywhere, even (and maybe especially) when the speakers are "obnoxious" and "offensive" and "infantile." Or French.

Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.tv and Reason.com and the co-author, with Matt Welch, of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America. Follow him on Twitter. This story originally appeared this morning but has been updated and expanded during the day.

Watch Reason.tv's video on "What's the biggest threat to free speech?" from that event: