What is freedom of speech?

A friend recently pointed out this article to me.  The story, featured in a number of papers, with different angles, was essentially about an Ultra-Orthodox paper that published a picture of the Paris anti-terror rally with the women photoshopped out of it.

While the article in all its permutations was a deliberately ill-timed attempt to malign the Ultra-Orthodox community, this version had a particular angle:  that this ultra-orthodox newspaper was in a sense equivalent to the Paris terrorists in that they are both part of the same extremists we are fighting against.

As my friend pointed out, the left-wing blogger who made this argument couldn’t have missed the point more.  The Charlie Hebdo writers and cartoonists stood for freedom of speech.  Their credo was that they should not be silenced by threats against them and they should be able to publish whatever they want.  That what they wanted to publish was anti-religious is irrelevant:  the real value is the choice, not the content.

The ultra-Orthodox paper should be able to publish whatever it wants: it has a certain readership and, if left-wing bloggers don’t like it, they don’t have to buy it.

In a related story, the French arrested comedian Dieudonne over his insensitive comments about the shooting.  Dieudonne, a rabidly anti-Semitic, despicable human being, is now getting the attention of the press and is, I am sure to some, viewed as a martyr.

And yet, I am adamantly against his arrest.  What has it accomplished?  A racist, hateful individual is getting air time to make his views public and probably build followers.  Dieudonne, like the ultra-Orthodox paper, and like me, ought to have the right to say whatever we want without fear of violence, arrest, or threats.  He should be able to say he hates Jews and I should be able to say I hate him.  Someone wants to deny the Holocaust?  Go ahead.  Is our belief in the validity of the Holocaust so frail that we have to imprison people who deny it?

Freedom of Speech isn’t hard to understand, but yet it is so easily twisted into a paradigm of “acceptable” freedom of speech – that is, it has morphed into the freedom to say what is acceptable.  Doesn’t sound like much freedom, does it?

In truth, freedom of speech means the right to express one’s self in whatever way a person wishes.  Words should have social consequences, and in all but rare cases, not physical or legal ones.  Short of directly calling for/inciting murder or violence, or in extreme cases of defamation, freedom of speech should be wide and vast.

The lesson of the Charlie Hebdo killings is the difference between us and them isn’t the difference between moderation and extremism, it is the difference between freedom and suppression.  That the French themselves can’t learn that lesson is a scary harbinger of things to come.

About the Author
Michael Tweyman is a politically conservative Toronto lawyer whose writing has appeared in the Canadian Jewish News. Michael has no formal affiliation with any Israeli political party or movement.
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