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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People everywhere today are mourning the attack on Charlie Hebdo. As many of you know, I take freedom of speech seriously; many years ago, it was the primary focus of my law practice, and, at one point, when I defended the first amendment rights of an unpopular group, I received death threats myself and had police protection for several days. For a while, I wouldn’t go out with friends to avoid placing anyone else at risk. And many people had a hard time separating belief in free speech from the (repugnant) beliefs of those whose rights I defended.
So, in a much lesser way, I know first-hand the isolation that arises at the limits of the freedoms we hold dear, and I salute those who paid the ultimate price yesterday for those freedoms. And, ironically, I had planned to share with you today the range of end-of-year articles I wrote recently that, while on diverse subjects, all ultimately relate to the general question of freedom and its price.
The central heritage of the liberal West is the right to express even views offensive to others. The furore over the movie The Interview started with the assertion by the North Korean regime of the power effectively to ban expression it found offensive; my three–part discussion of it ends with why freedom of expression may be what ultimately allows liberal societies to succeed in the face of even physical and economic threats.
If it’s our values that allow the West, and particularly the US, to serve as a beacon to peoples everywhere, and that ultimately form our greatest bulwark, then the torture debate last month should be dispiriting. Polls show that the overwhelming majority of Americans thinks that the “enhanced interrogation” techniques employed by our government constitute torture but endorses their use. This can lead to difficult and important philosophical debates about means justifying ends – but, as I argued in US News & World Report, it should shut the door on the ability of torture supporters to assert that they’re the defenders of morality in any meaningful way.
Finally, with a new Congress this week, I discuss in The Hill how liberals and conservatives alike cling to positions from fifty years ago as if these are eternal values rather than context-specific expressions of them – and how, instead, we might move forward together.