Charlie Hebdo in the Dock

Despite its stand against the terrorist's veto, France treats offensive words and images as crimes.


On January 11, as more than a million people marched through the streets of Paris in support of the right to draw cartoons without being murdered, the French Ministry of Culture and Communication declared that "artistic freedom and freedom of expression stand firm and unflinching at the heart of our common European values." It added that "France and her allies in the EU safeguard these values and promote them in the world."

In the wake of the massacre at the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, perpetrated by men who saw death as a fitting punishment for the crime of insulting Islam, these were stirring words. If only they were true. Sadly, France and other European countries continue to legitimize the grievances underlying the barbaric attack on Charlie Hebdo by endorsing the illiberal idea that people have a right not to be offended.

It is true that France does not prescribe the death penalty for publishing cartoons that offend Muslims. But under French law, insulting people based on their religion is a crime punishable by a fine of €22,500 and six months in jail.

In addition to religion, that law 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.

In 2006 the Paris Grand Mosque and the Union of French Islamic Organizations used the ban on religious insults to sue Charlie Hebdo and its editor at the time, Philippe Val, over its publication of three cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, including two that had appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten the previous year. Although Charlie Hebdo won the case and Val escaped prison, the potential for such inquiries inevitably has a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

Since the mid-1980s, French courts have rejected religious-insult complaints against books, movies, movie posters, and written and oral commentary (including novelist Michel Houellebecq's 2001 description of Islam as "the stupidest religion"). They have been more receptive to complaints about a billboard lampooning The Last Supper, a newspaper essay on the purported connection between Catholic doctrine and the Holocaust, and remarks by the actress Brigitte Bardot and the comedian Dieudonne M'bala M'bala, whose shows have been banned as anti-Semitic.

The point is not that the government has done a bad job of distinguishing between legitimate art or commentary and gratuitous offensiveness. In a free society, that is simply not the government's job. When courts are asked to draw this line, artists and commentators must try to anticipate whether their work will pass muster, which promotes self-censorship.

Worse, this system teaches people that the use of force is an appropriate response to words and images that offend—a principle that is poisonous to free speech and conducive to violence. Since 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, it would not be surprising if some people, convinced that their rights had been violated and that they could not count on the courts to vindicate them, resorted to self-help.

Other countries that criminalize "hate speech," including Germany, the Netherlands, the U.K., Sweden, and Canada, are likewise sending the dangerous message that offending people with words or images is akin to assaulting them with fists or knives. 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.

Senior Editor Jacob Sullum ( is a nationally syndicated columnist. Copyright © 2015 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. Sacrilege may upset people, but it does not violate their rights.

    If only liberty was a religion, we could arrest the arresters.

    1. The idea of liberty is very much like a religion, it just doesn't have as many followers as it used to, or maybe in honest retrospect it never really had that many followers to begin with.

      1. The idea of liberty is very much like a religion

        In that its followers believe in something that doesn't exist?

        1. Liberty embodies a basic skepticism. A deep doubt that central authorities are either justified or competent to plan my choices better than I can.
          Almost the opposite of liberty = religion.

  2. This isn't about people being offended. It's about exterminating free speech one step at a time. This is how progress(ive) works.

    1. There are some who'll use such suppression as a weapon like that, and it's possible that they're the tail wagging the dog, but I think broad support exists for such policy based on the concepts that:

      (1) Saying bad things about a group of people, or about what things they do or believe, provokes violence in retaliation.

      (2) Saying those bad things convinces other people that the people those things are said about are bad, provoking violence against those people.

      Of those factors, I think they weight #2 more heavily than #1. However, it's possible the weighting varies case by case. For instance, they may be afraid Muslims will retaliate with violence, and afraid that people will be convinced to do violence to Jews.

      Ultimately of course this makes all of what's usually called political speech suspect, since there are usually interest groups on either side of an issue, but I don't think that's the intention of the great majority of those who promote & sustain these policies.

      1. What it means is that these people think the criminaliz'n of hate speech (or group-oppositional communication in general) goes along with, far from opposing, condemnation of violence such as the Hebdo shootings. They're saying, don't be mean, whether "mean" is in words or physical violence.

  3. So, they're going to a digital subscribers only model?

    I bet there are some people who donated more at the pledge drive than you'd get from a digital subscription--who aren't going to pony up for a subscription.

    The worst thing about this is that it's going to mean fewer newbies over time. I see links to Reason articles posted in the comment sections all over the interwebs. What if the Romans had to pay to hear the gospel? Seems like it would have made it tougher to take over the Empire.

    I appreciate this will mean fewer trolls, too. I just hope it isn't at the price of being able to spread the libertarian gospel. I hope Reason is just doing it for the money, and I'd hate to think they're doing it to protect the commentariat's right not to be offended by the Maries and Shrikes of the world.

    It'll be interesting to see if they'll pony up. I doubt it. As much time as they spend trolling here, I think they see trolling as enjoyable--but not something they'd pay to do.

    1. This was an accident. The piece was supposed to be available to everybody regardless of whether they subscribed. It should show now.

      1. Too late. I'm already outraged.

      2. Well I'm a digital subscriber now.

        Clever ploy.

        Tell Gillespie, or whomever is in charge of petty cash, they owe you my fifteen bucks--or to take you out to lunch or something.

        You deserve it!

      3. Cancel my digital subscription!

  4. France does not prescribe the death penalty for publishing cartoons that offend Muslims.

    Only, one presumes, because France does not prescribe the death penalty for *anything*.

  5. You think Lois `s posting is nice... on Sunday I bought Jaguar E-type since getting a cheque for $9279 this last 5 weeks and more than ten thousand last month . it's definitely the nicest-job Ive ever had . I began this seven months/ago and straight away was bringing home minimum $79, per-hr .
    why not try here ?????????????

  6. a fine of 22,500(. . .)

    . . . cans of cat food?

    . . . miles of twine?

    . . . lashes with a wet noodle?


    1. Lira? French Franc?

      1. Umpa-Loompa-bucks

      2. Iranian rial

  7. In the second to last paragraph, why does Scullum not include the United States among the countries that make hate speech a crime? What began as a movement on campuses to limit offensive speech, gradually became acceptance of the idea that offensive speech is a punishable act. See Speak No Evil: The Triumph of Hate Speech Regulation, by Jon B. Gould.

    We follow what happens on college campuses, because we know what an outsize influence they have on the larger political culture. Laws against hate speech might be a little further along in Europe than they are in the United States, but, in some places, we have a strong impulse to catch up.

    1. Hate Speech is not illegal by itself in the US. Hate speech is limited in certain contexts in that organizations that tolerate it may lose federal funding, and it may lead to increased penalties for other crimes. That's not a good situation, but it is nowhere near the situation in Europe, where hate speech can get you fined or thrown in jail.

      1. We do have 'hate crimes' in the U.S.

        1. He encapsulated that with the phrase

          " and it may lead to increased penalties for other crimes"

          You'll note that for hate crime laws to apply, you have to actually ASSAULT someone (or maybe steal from or burglarize, I don't know how the laws are written, I only know that it definitely includes assault, battery, murder, etc.)

          1. Let's say you throw the first punch in a fight. Then the other guy shouts one of the magic "hate words". Now what started as you victimizing someone turns into him victimizing you.

            So no, you don't necessarily have to unambiguously commit an actual crime to be charged with a hate crime.

            1. You cam be charged erroneously with anything. That doesn't change the fact that the US had only hate crimes legislation, while in Europe done kind of speech itself is illegal. In Germany, any speech that may offend religions or might cause people to react violently is illegal.

  8. It's still OK to insult French people based on their nationality, I trust?

    1. You mean cheese eating surrender monkeys

      1. It takes twelve hours to drive from Berlin to Paris in a Mercedes. Add about two weeks if you are instead driving a Panzer.

        1. Why are there so many trees along the Champs Elysees?

          So the Germans can march in the shade.

          1. Say what you like about those filthy little chain-smoking beret-wearing pseudo sophisticate Euro weasels, they are very thoughtful to their Germanic natural superiors and make a mean croissant.

            I still don't like them though.

            1. I presume you've heard of the new French battle flag?
              It's a white cross on a white background; very handy!

      2. Just think of all those poor frogs murdered for their skinny little legs.

    2. +1 white cross emblazoned on a white background

      1. Oops; should scrolled down first!

  9. I wish more Reason articles about France's speech laws would mention the relationship between them and their gun control policies, which are some of the strictest in Europe. Basically, if you don't give people the means to defend themselves free speech will always put people at risk, whether it's by criminals or the government.

    1. That should say freedom, not means

  10. Don't forget Australia.

    "Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act goes to the heart of this new anti-free speech climate.

    This law says you cannot say anything which is "reasonably likely ? to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people" because of their "race, colour or national or ethnic origin". [Read the full text of 18C] "

    1. Haven't forgotten Oz, and likely won't. When it comes to wars on liberty the Aussie rulers make our US reps made rulers look like amateurs.

  11. You can't say or write illiberal without saying liberal. Today the two are one in the same and entirely inseparable.

    1. *or writing

  12. Reason serves to make us stronger by denying us the ability to edit our scribbles. It's get it right the first time or effe off.

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