Post-Charlie: Is Freedom of Speech Back in Vogue?

Charlie-Hebdo-Freedom-of-SpeechFreedom of speech is back in vogue.  Now, everyone is Charlie.

Except, it turns out, most people don’t really want to be Charlie, because Charlie is offensive.  After the initial, near-universal rallying to the banner of freed speech, some on the left have begun to assert that the magazine’s targets – racial and religious minorities – took it outside the bounds of permissible speech.

(Let’s ignore for the moment that Charlie seemed intent on insulting everyone, from Catholics and Jews to Charles de Gaulle, not just Muslims.)  Many are now debating whether speech like Charlie’s deserves the freedoms we accord it or whether there isn’t some less scurrilous speech to celebrate.

In my US News piece, I try to spell out the rationale for free speech and its limits that I worked on in law school and in my early legal career – and why I think it’s so important.

This is a difficult issue.  We all recognize that authorities should be able to suppress attempts to overturn the government by force – but should they also be empowered to suppress advocacy of overthrow?  If so, where do we draw the line between impermissible advocacy and mere criticism of the political system and calls for change? Can those in power – or even the majority in a democracy – be safely entrusted with drawing such distinctions?  Where do we draw the line between people’s right to express their opinions, no matter how controversial, and speech that offends others – or that potentially compromises other people’s interests?  Answering these questions in many ways determines the kind of society we have.

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