If there is a recent example of free speech that has captured the world’s attention, it is the satirical comics of the French news magazine Charlie Hebdo.
After the Jan. 7 terrorist attacks targeting the reporters in the magazine’s newsroom, the world united in affirming and celebrating the right to free speech and parody of all things including religion. However, the vast majority of mainstream news outlets in the United States including the New York Times, the Associated Press, CNN, ABC and others declined to republish the cartoons that showed representations of the Prophet Mohammed even as a means to inform their audience about a worldwide news event.
Times executive editor Dean Baquet said he was particularly concerned about the safety of his foreign correspondents reporting in majority Muslim countries. He also said most of the cartoons were designed to be shocking and insulting. “We have a standard that is long held and that serves us well: that there is a line between gratuitous insult and satire,” he said. “Most of these are gratuitous insult.”
In this case, the news organizations self-censored because of the fear of ramifications toward their staff and a fear of offending readers. These are editorial decisions and there would be nothing illegal about publishing the cartoons. In fact, several publications, most notably the Washington Post, decided to publish the cartoons.
U.S. law does not and should not limit offensive speech. That would fulfill the demands of the terrorists or extremist groups who want to silence messages they deem offensive and heretical.
Salem Solomon (@salem_solomon) is the founder and editor of Africa Talks, a multimedia news site tracking issues about Africa and the global African diaspora. She is a journalist, a graduate student and a teaching assistant at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.