Testing the limits of free speech

The limits of free speech are being tested these days and a clear line delineating the acceptable from the unacceptable is still a zigzag in the making.

Following the attacks in France, millions pronounced ‘Je Suis Charlie,’ in support of the French satirical publication. Yet on the day Charlie Hebdo sold out of five million copies of its latest issue, French Comedian Dieudonné was arrested and charged with inciting terrorism for posting the Facebook status “Je me sens Charlie Coulibaly’ (I feel like Charlie Coulibaly). Coulibaly was the gunman who attacked the Kosher supermarket in Paris. Days after the march where pencils were held up high symbolizing freedom of speech, 54 People were arrested in France for offensive speech.

In fact, Charlie Hebdo, like Dieudonné, has had many run-ins with the law over its publications, having lost nine out of forty-eight trials for its boundary testing, according to Le Monde.

Charlie Hebdo Cover
The Latest Charlie Hebdo Cover

Let’s be clear, no one in their right mind can defend killing someone in retaliation to an offence, but what is being very much debated is the right to offend.

Pope Francis entered the debate suggesting that there are limits to the freedom of expression, stating that ‘if my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch.’ David Cameron then criticised the Pope, insisting it is wrong to suggest that those who mock Islam and other religions could expect a punch.

It should be noted that Charlie Hebdo was an equal opportunity offender targeting Islam, Judaism and Catholicism among many other groups. Yet, it was its depiction of the Prophet Mohammad which prompted the reaction, echoing the global protests that swept the Arab world in 2006 following the publication of Danish cartoons featuring the same prophet. Notably, the 2012 publication by The Onion featuring an illustration of Moses, Jesus Christ, Ganesha and Buddha depicted ‘engaging in a lascivious sex act of considerable depravity’ drew no such reaction. The image was aptly titled ‘No One Murdered Because Of This Image.

Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg revealed he was facing death threats over Facebook’s policy vis-à-vis material offensive to Muslims. He stated:

We stood up for this because different voices — even if they’re sometimes offensive — can make the world a better and more interesting place…. As I reflect on yesterday’s attack [on Charlie Hedbo] and my own experience with extremism, this is what we all need to reject — a group of extremists trying to silence the voices and opinions of everyone else around the world.

This debate about the limits of free speech has reignited calls in Australia for repealing laws that make it unlawful to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or group,’ with Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson stating that Charlie Hebdo cartoons would not be allowed under the Racial Discrimination Act while Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane disagreed. The Australian laws are not dissimilar to the Canadian laws as enforced against journalists Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant for articles offensive to Islam.

So, with this by way of preamble, having heard from the Catholic Pope and having watched the reaction of Muslims, it is pertinent to ask: what is the Jewish view on the topic?

I can think of no better person to provide that perspective then the erudite Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, writing for The Times as Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth in the context imprisonment of David Irving for Holocaust denial back in 2006. His article was titled ‘One thing a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian and a humanist can agree on.’

THE imprisonment of David Irving for Holocaust denial raises an important question: to what extent does truth need the protection of law?


[T]here is a chapter in the history of ideas that deserves to be better known.


One of the achievements of early Islam was to rescue the works of Plato, Aristotle and their disciples from oblivion. A key figure in this was the philosopher Ibn Rushd (1126-98), known in the West as Averroës, who made a powerful case for freedom of speech in pursuit of the truth. You should always, he said, cite the views of your opponents. Silencing them is an implicit admission of the weakness of your case.


Rabbi Judah Loewe (1525- 1609), the Jewish sage known as the Maharal of Prague, cites Averroës while making the same point. He adds: “Do not say to your opponent: ‘Speak not, close your mouth.’ If that happens, there will take place no purification of religion . . . This is the opposite of what some people think, namely, that when you prevent someone from speaking against religion, that strengthens religion. That is not so, because curbing the words of an opponent in religious matters is nothing but the curbing and enfeebling of religion itself.”


Within a century John Milton made the same point in his pamphlet in defence of free speech, Areopagitica (1644): “And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”


John Stuart Mill reiterated the argument in On Liberty (1859): “But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”


I find it moving to trace this conversation, extended across seven centuries, in which first a Muslim, then a Jew, then a Christian, then a secular humanist, come together to agree on the importance of free speech and the dignity of dissent. Truth, they believed, is not served by erecting around it defensive walls of legislation. We honour it by surrounding it with spacious lawns of free expression and flowerbeds of respectful debate.


Their view did not always prevail. To this day, religion is seen in a negative light because at times it chose the other way: to impose truth by force. The result in the Middle Ages was a series of staged disputations, forced conversions, excommunications, inquisitions and burnings at the stake. Nothing was served by this: not religion or truth, not freedom or human dignity. It remains a stain on the record of faith.


That Europe eventually found its way to freedom was due in no small measure to the wisdom and courage of figures such as Averroës and Rabbi Loewe, Milton and Mill. They believed that truth is strong enough to defeat its opponents without the help of law, coercion or intimidation. They had the confidence born of faith. Their opponents had the aggression born of fear.


In an age when religion is again in danger of becoming a repressive force, their story is worth retelling. There was a time when Muslim, Jewish, Christian and humanist voices joined in defending free expression as a matter of religious and moral principle. We may yet need them to do so again.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. If only Jews, Muslims, Christians and humanists could agree on this today.


About the Author
Eli Bernstein grew up in Israel and now resides in Perth, Australia. Among other things, he is a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs and politics.
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