Which freedom of speech should we defend? On the confused debate following the Charlie Hebdo shooting

Freedom of speech has always been conditional and all societies have set limits to it. But after the killings in Paris, we were once again reminded of how the conditions of freedom of speech have changed in a global and digitalized world – we are all for freedom of speech in theory, except when it hurts ourselves or is likely to strengthen social conflicts. We have to face the difficult discussion about why freedom of speech is essential – if we do not wish to restrict it in the name of democracy, writes Jo Glanville, director of English PEN

October 13 2015 Text: Jo Glanville

Who cares about free speech? The turnout of world leaders on the streets of Paris in January, in an unprecedented show of solidarity after the Charlie Hebdo murders, appeared to suggest that everyone does. More than 40 world leaders joined more than 1.5 million for a march in defence of freedom of expression. There was Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to France, days after the flogging of Raif Badawi, whose crime was to found a website for political debate; there was Turkey’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, whose government routinely prosecutes and imprisons journalists, alongside Russia’s and Egypt’s foreign ministers, who have equally questionable records on media freedom back home.

Within weeks, there was a spate of arrests and prosecutions in France of people who were judged to be supporting terrorism. Between January 7 and 29, there were 486 legal cases linked to the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Of these, 257 were cases of people accused of condoning or provoking terrorism.

This included a man arrested for drunk driving in the north of France who shouted at police officers: ‘There should be more Kouachis [the name of the gunmen brothers behind the Charlie Hebdo attack]. I hope that you’ll be next.’ He was sentenced to four years in prison; a 21-year-old arrested on a tram for travelling without a ticket told the ticket inspectors: ‘The Kouachi brothers were just the start. I wish I’d been with them to kill more.’ He was sentenced to ten months in prison. Schoolchildren were questioned, too.

This range of responses —from apparent unequivocal support for free speech to legal sanction—illustrate a bewildering inconsistency and ambivalence in our response to defending free speech and where we draw the line.

Where does that ambivalence begin? The European Court of Human Rights recognises the freedom of expression as ‘one of the essential foundations of a democratic society, one of the basic conditions of its progress and for the development of every man’ and has ruled that the right to freedom of expression includes views that ‘offend, shock or disturb’. Yet there is always a tension. Free speech is a qualified right. Publishers, writers, journalists and broadcasters have always had to fight to push back the boundaries against censorship. And they still do. We may trumpet free speech as necessary for a democracy and an open society. But it’s actually always been the case that we see censorship as a good thing too, generally to protect us from harm or to keep secrets safe.

Exactly the same mix of support, condemnation and double standards took place after the fatwa against Salman Rushdie 26 years ago. Jimmy Carter said The Satanic Verses was ‘a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated’. John le Carre declared: ‘I don't think it is given to any of us to be impertinent to great religions with impunity’ and said he was surprised that Rushdie hadn’t withdrawn the book; Roald Dahl called him ‘a dangerous opportunist’ who must have known exactly what he was doing. Kenan Malik, the most astute analyst on the subject, has argued that, after Rushdie, there was a decisive shift in our attitudes away from free speech and towards censorship: in a diverse society, the best course of action has become to appease religious and cultural sensibilities through self-censorship. As Malik puts it: ‘the avoidance of cultural pain has come to be regarded as more important than the right to freedom of expression’.

Not only have we found no answer in Europe in a generation as to how best to defend free speech against cries of offence, the problem has now multiplied in the age of social media and digital communication. The enlightened former Director of Public Prosecutions in the UK, Keir Starmer, has issued new guidelines for prosecutors as a result of his concern at the number of prosecutions targeting offensive speech. Our commitment to defending speech is likely to continue to be challenged by new means of communication. Somehow, the method has come to eclipse the content: speech that would trouble no one in conversation can cause moral outrage when broadcast to a wider public.