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Paris Terror Attacks: An issue of freedom of speech?


With the last few weeks dominated by the Paris terror attacks and their aftermath, Josh Cooper reflects on what this means for our right to freedom to expression and speech.

The start of the new term has been very much dominated by the horrific attacks in Paris. With mainstream news narratives quickly framing the issue into a seemingly simple one of freedom of expression, I have noticed how many friends and fellow students have challenged this construction, instead taking sceptical stances in an attempt to take stock of what has happened.

One way in which they have done this is by highlighting that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from criticism. While we are all appalled by the murders, our natural condemnation does not demand outright approval of the publication itself, which as its images have become more widely shown, its history of racism has also become apparent. Racialised depictions of the Boko Haram victims. Many derogatory caricatures of Muslims. While such images should be understood in the context of satire and French satirical tradition at that, satire is also supposed to mock the powerful, not the marginalised.

As our French class watched a video of the satirical newspaper at work, students admitted finding the images produced to be abusive and vulgar. It therefore seems that espoused ideals like free speech, although being portrayed as absolute, are in fact an on-going process and always have a negotiable line. This is shown by the relationship between free speech and hate speech. As our teacher pointed out, even France has some of the toughest hate speech laws in the European Union. No crossing of this line ever merits murder, but questions should be raised about finding a constructive balance and preventing all kinds of subjugation.

Another way in which people have challenged the dominant narrative is through highlighting the apparent double standards in applying this ‘free speech’. I have lost count of the number of examples given that show freedom of speech being used selectively in France. France banned rallies in solidarity with Gaza during last summer’s war. French comedian Dieudonne was recently taken into police custody for a Facebook post. The Charlie Hebdo magazine itself fired one of its employees in 2008 due to anti-Semitic content. This apparent hypocrisy spreads beyond France and was evident too in the irony of the solidarity march of which the attendees read like a who’s who of enemies of free speech, a hypocrisy which begs the question about whether this is really what it is about.

In challenging this freedom of speech narrative, people are attempting to frame a discussion that can prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future. Doing so extends beyond merely ‘condemnation’ but also investigates the causes of radicalism that leads to such attacks. This involves too a discussion of our own accountability, including Muslim alienation in both France and elsewhere in Europe, and our violent foreign policies. It seems that people have truly had enough, not just of the violent acts themselves but of the whole vicious cycle of violence as well as the damaging and misleading narratives which perpetuate it.

Josh Cooper

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