In its first publication following the Jan. 7 attack on its Paris office, in which two Muslim gunmen massacred 12 people, the once little-known French satirical news weekly crossed the line that separates free speech from toxic talk.
Charlie Hebdo’s latest depiction of the prophet Mohammed — a repeat of the very action that is thought to have sparked the murderous attack on its office — predictably has given rise to widespread violence in nations with large Muslim populations. Its irreverence of Mohammed once moved the French tabloid to portray him naked in a pornographic pose. In another caricature, it showed Mohammed being beheaded by a member of the Islamic State.
While free speech is one of democracy’s most important pillars, it has its limits. H.L. Mencken, the fabled columnist who described himself as “an extreme libertarian,” said that he believed in free speech”up to the last limits of the endurable.”
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French President Francois Hollande, apparently, disagrees. He defendsCharlie Hebdo’s latest depiction of Mohammed by saying that protesters in other countries don’t understand France’s embrace of free speech.
But even as Hollande defends Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish images of Mohammed that many Muslims consider sacrilegious and hateful, his government has imprisoned dozens of people who have condemned the magazine with talk the French won’t tolerate. Those arrested are accused of speaking in support of the attack on the magazine, and a separate assault on a kosher store in Paris by a lone Muslim gunman with links to the men who attacked Charlie Hebdo.
While the Obama administration condemned these deadly attacks, it probably wasn’t surprised. Two years ago, then-press secretary Jay Carney questioned the judgment of Charlie Hebdo’s editors when they published an offensive depiction of Mohammed. That came a year after the newspaper’s office was firebombed when it tauntingly named Mohammed its guest editor. That portrayal came with a caption that read: “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing.”
The most current issue of Charlie Hebdo again has Mohammed on its cover. This time, he appears crying under a headline that reads: “All is forgiven.” Well, apparently not. Ten people have been killed during protests in Niger, a former French colony. Other anti-French riots have erupted from North Africa to Asia. In reaction to all of this, Pope Francis has said of the magazine, “You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
The French, of course, are no more bound to accept the findings of the bishop of Rome than they are to be guided by the Supreme Court’s rulings on our Constitution’s free speech guarantee. But given the possible ripple effects of Charlie Hebdo’s mistreatment of Islam’s most sacred religious figure, at least people in this country should understand the limits America’s highest court has placed on free speech.
In 1919, the Supreme Court ruled speech that presents a “clear and present danger” is not protected by the First Amendment. Crying “fire” in a quiet, uninhabited place is one thing, the court said. But “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”
Twenty-two years later, the Supreme Court ruled that forms of expression that “inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” are fighting words that are not protected by the First Amendment.
If Charlie Hebdo’s irreverent portrayal of Mohammed before the Jan. 7 attack wasn’t thought to constitute fighting words, or a clear and present danger, there should be no doubt now that the newspaper’s continued mocking of the Islamic prophet incites violence. And it pushes Charlie Hebdo’s free speech claim beyond the limits of the endurable.