Charlie Hebdo Massacre

How France Legitimizes Violent Responses to Offensive Speech

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Jyllands-Posten

Nine years before two gunmen executed 10 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo for the crime of insulting Islam, two Muslim organizations tried to imprison the editor of the satirical French weekly for the crime of insulting Islam. Although Charlie Hebdo won that case, the fact that it was possible illustrates how French law legitimizes the grievances underlying yesterday's barbaric attack by endorsing the illiberal idea that people have a right not to be offended.

The Paris Grand Mosque and the Union of French Islamic Organizations sued Charlie Hebdo  and its editor at the time, Philippe Val, over its 2006 publication of three cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, including two that had appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten the previous year. One of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons showed Muhammad in heaven, telling a line of arriving suicide bombers, "Stop, stop, we ran out of virgins!" The other depicted Muhammad with a turban in the shape of a bomb. The third cartoon was a cover illustration labeled "Muhammad Overwhelmed by Fundamentalists" that showed an anguished prophet with his hands to his face, saying, "It's hard being loved by assholes."

The complaining organizations argued that all three cartoons violated French law, which makes insulting people based on their religion a crime punishable by a fine of €22,500 and six months in jail. In March 2007 a Paris judge, Jean-Claude Magendie, concluded that two of the cartoons targeted radical Islamists, as opposed to Muslims in general. He said the third cartoon, the one with Muhammad wearing a turban-bomb, did qualify as an attack on Muslims in general. But because Val had published it in response to an earlier controversy over its appearance in Jyllands-Posten, Magendie ruled, he lacked the requisite intent to insult. An appeals court upheld the decision, although it concluded that none of the cartoons amounted to an attack based on religion.

Since Charlie Hebdo won and Val escaped prison, you may wonder, what's the big deal? French courts, which since the mid-1980s have rejected a series of religious-insult complaints against written and oral commentary, novels, movies, and movie posters, seem to be doing a pretty good job of distinguishing between legitimate art or journalism and gratuitous offensiveness. But in a free society, that is not the government's job. Aside from the chilling effect that the potential for such inquiries is apt to have, this system teaches people that the use of force is an appropriate response to words that offend—a principle that is poisonous to free expression and conducive to violence.

"In France," Charlie Hebdo contributor Laurent Leger remarked a few years ago, "we always have the right to write and draw. And if some people are not happy with this, they can sue us, and we can defend ourselves. That's democracy. You don't throw bombs, you discuss, you debate. But you don't act violently. We have to stand and resist pressure from extremism."

I heartily endorse Leger's sentiment. Yet it clearly is not true that in France people "always have the right to write and draw." That right is qualified by the law under which Charlie Hebdo was sued, which in addition to religion covers insults based on race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, or disability. Defamation (as opposed to mere insult) based on any of those factors is punishable by up to a year in prison, and so is incitement to discrimination, hatred, or violence. A separate statute makes questioning the Holocaust a crime subject to a five-year prison sentence.  

Although Leger presents this web of speech restrictions as an alternative to violence, it is also an excuse for violence. After all, the French government has announced that offending the wrong people by saying the wrong thing in the wrong context can be treated as a crime. While Charlie Hebdo was acquitted of that crime, no doubt many Muslims disagreed with that result. It would not be surprising if a few of them, convinced that their rights were violated and that they could not depend on the government to vindicate them, resorted to self-help.

I am not saying yesterday's massacre can be blamed on France's hate speech laws. Although the two suspected gunmen were born and raised in France, there is no evidence that they cared about the content of these statutes or that they needed any additional justification beyond their own understanding of Islam. But it is hypocritical and reckless for a government that claims to respect freedom of the press to criminalize images and words based on their emotional impact. Although such laws are defended in the name of diversity and tolerance, it is the opposite of enlightened to invite legal complaints aimed at suppressing offensive messages. 

Instead of facilitating censorship by the sensitive, a government truly committed to open debate and freedom of speech would make it clear, in no uncertain terms, that offending Muslims (or any other religious group) is not a crime. Sacrilege may upset people, but it does not violate their rights. By abandoning that distinction, avowed defenders of Enlightenment values capitulate to the forces of darkness.

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  1. off topic, but great news

    http://www.latimes.com/nation/…..story.html

    California Sen. Barbara Boxer, a standard-bearer of liberal politics who has served in Congress for more than three decades, announced Thursday she will not run for another term.

    1. She’s prepping for 2016

      1. Damn. She’s the one person who could cost me my Lizzie Warren bet.

        The Dems will nominate a woman. And it won’t be Hillary.

        1. And it won’t be Hillary.

          I’ll bet $50 against you; I think the republicans are gonna run Mitt again, to which I’d almost guarantee Hillary wins the nomination and even the election.

          1. I think Hillary would win a general against either Mitt or Jeb, but I don’t think she’ll even get the nomination. Not Left enough.

            1. Now there’s a scary thought.

    2. She’ll just be replaced by someone with a different name but the same exact view. Hardly a win for liberty.

      1. Yes, by a senior senator with leadership positions on many committees will be replaced by a freshman senator with coffee-fetching responsibilities on some set of committees.

        1. ^^This

          This is great news. Too bad her constituents have allowed her and Di Fi to stay there so long.

          1. I worked really hard for this title.

            1. Aren’t titles illegal?

      2. Remember, the 2014 blowout was indicated by key democratic senators announcing their retirements starting just after the 2012 election.

        Boxer would not be announcing now if there was any indication of a democratic comeback in 2016.

    3. a standard-bearer of liberal politics who has served in Congress for more than three decades,

      I’m starting to think the problem might not be the politicians, but those who elect them.

      1. There are plenty of problems with her constituents, but keeping her in office isn’t surprising.

        Incumbents have a huge electoral advantage, which generally grows the longer they hang around.

        That advantage is best fought structurally, with term limits.

  2. Related:

    In wake of Charlie Hebdo attacks, secularist groups to seek end of Canada’s blasphemy law

    Section 296 of the Criminal Code makes “blasphemous libel” punishable by up to two years in jail in Canada.

    No one been prosecuted under the law since 1935. As late as 1980, the law was used to charge the Canadian distributor of Monty Python’s film Life of Brian; the charges were later dropped.

    I always chuckle whenever anyone suggests Canada is a free country.

    1. No one been prosecuted under the law since 1935. As late as 1980, the law was used to charge

      Somebody doesn’t understand what “prosecuted” means.

      1. It doesn’t count if you don’t finish? /derp

  3. Defamation (as opposed to mere insult) based on any of those factors is punishable by up to a year in prison, and so is incitment to discrimination, hatred, or violence. A separate statute makes questioning the Holocaust a crime subject to a five-year prison sentence.

    I’m confused. I’ve been hearing stories about how the French are proud of their commitment to “Freedom of Speech”.

    1. It’s nominally punishable by up to a year of prison, but the European Court of Human Rights has never upheld any jail sentence for defamation, only small fines. In New York, on the other hand, criminal libel, punishable by incarceration, has been resuscitated under peculiar legal pretexts, with virtually no discussion whatsoever by any legal commentator. Whatever it takes to get the job done, right? See the documentation of America’s leading criminal satire (=criminal libel = criminal “impersonation” = criminal parody) case at:

      http://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  4. The complaining organizations argued that all three cartoons violated French law, which makes insulting people based on their religion a crime punishable by a fine of ?22,500 and six months in jail.

    I take everything I said yesterday back. France deserves everything it gets as long as they tolerate this kind of “law.”

    1. France isn’t special in that regard. That sort of law is typical of the world.

    2. So what you’re saying in effect is that Crowley was right when he wrote:

      There is no God but Man.
      Man has the right to live by his own law.
      Man has the right to live in the way that he wills to do.
      Man has the right to dress as he wills to do.
      Man has the right to dwell where he wills to dwell.
      Man has the right to move as he will on the face of the earth.
      Man has the right to eat what he will.
      Man has the right to drink what he will.
      Man has the right to think what he will.
      Man has the right to speak as he will.
      Man has the right to write as he will.
      Man has the right to mould as he will.
      Man has the right to carve as he will.
      Man has the right to work as he will.
      Man has the right to rest as he will.
      Man has the right to love as he will, where, when and whom he will.
      Man has the right to kill those who would thwart these rights.

  5. Looks like the ideas of the Enlightenment didn’t quite “stick” in France or the UK. They’re hanging on by a mere thread here.

    1. Meh, they just consider suppression of “hate speech” being enlightened.

      I’ve found liberals love using words with either ambiguous, vague, or even no meaning, because it lets them hold multiple contradictory beliefs at once. French is far more vague than English to start with; they didn’t stand much of a chance.

    2. Also, do we get SFW boobies today?

  6. I am not saying yesterday’s massacre can be blamed on France’s hate speech laws.

    But perhaps you should. Hate-speech laws endorse the idea that a person can have a legitimate moral claim to stop others from saying things they find offensive or hurtful.
    If you believe that you have a right to stop other people from speaking words you don’t want them to speak, then you may eventually take enforcement of that right into your own hands.

    Furthermore, what the Islamists in question probably worry about is not that they themselves will be offended by the speech, (after all it is just infidels talking), it’s that they are afraid of other people questioning the faith. They want to stop other people from saying bad things about Islam because they don’t want Muslims questioning themselves or their faith. It is really a norm-enforcement action they are engaged in, not a retaliation for a hurt. They want to make it socially forbidden to question Islam.

  7. Speech restrictions are violence. Even the Charlie Hebdo editors don’t seem to understand this.

    1. Do they oppose Hate Speech laws? That would be pretty extreme for the French left.

  8. Although such laws are defended in the name of diversity and tolerance, it is the opposite of enlightened to invite legal complaints aimed at suppressing offensive messages.

    Damn you, Sullum! What about MUH FEELS?

  9. Forget about Hate Speech Laws what about French Foreign Policy?

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  11. Ignorant barbarians have been killing people for their thoughts and speech for millennia.

    No, these hate speech laws aren’t to blame for ignorant barbarians attacking people.

    I would say, though, that supporters of hate speech laws are ignorant barbarians.

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  13. Finally, someone nailed it! Thank you Jacob Sullum! The slippery slope of “hate speech” and all other moral equivalence we’re seeing by even indirectly hinting in the same month, let alone same article, that Charlie Hebdo’s content is to be considered as an even itsy bitsy culprit is absurd. Add to this absurdity Obama’s pathetic claims about “the future doesn’t belong to those who would insult the prophet of Islam,” which feeds the “don’t offend me” small people. More accurately, as Mr. Sullum eloquently and succinctly points out, it’s these “don’t offend” claims and laws(?!) that can be considered at least contributors to the violent sickness manifested in France, and potentially anywhere! As another commenter points out above, if it’s a “crime,” then it’s not unreasonable that violence is justified in the presence of (or to prevent?) the crime. God help us.

  14. Add to this absurdity Obama’s pathetic claims about “the future doesn’t belong to those who would insult the prophet of Islam,”

    When did he say that? I would hope the future absolutely belongs to them, or at least to those who classify belief in an Abrahamic Religion as the result of crazed on-track mind of proto-intelligences barely desperately hoping for outside miraculous agencies to explain their predicament.

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