Mon | Feb 17, 2020

Charlie Hebdo and free-speech hypocrisy

Published:Sunday | January 18, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Ian Boyne

The hypocrisy of those advocating unrestrained, offensive free speech is infuriating. The justifiable outrage over the barbaric killing of 12 people in France has led to some passionate, stirring defence of the right to offend and insult. I, too, believe people must have the right to offended and insult.

I don't approve of offensive, boorish or insolent speech. I abhor it. It is reprehensible, disgusting and below the dignity of any decent person. But I don't believe that offence should be criminalised or punished, except by the court of public opinion. I believe we should aim to build such a culture of tolerance, respect and devotion to ideological pluralism that those who are disrespectful of civic virtues should be ostracised by the sheer weight of public opprobrium. But we should not seek to censure insults or offence. I am strongly, unrelentingly opposed to so-called hate-speech legislation.

I believe Pope Francis was thoroughly misguided and wrong-headed when he said last Thursday: "You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others." It is tasteless, tacky and vulgar to do so, but I will defend people's right to do it.

What I find grating about certain free-speech defenders is their inconsistency. The same people who are boldly asserting the right of satirists like the Charlie Hebdo journalists to offend Muslims and insult their religion are incensed if religious people insult and offend homosexuals. You can't defend the free-speech rights of people who insult the Prophet Muhammad and his followers while denying those same rights to people who condemn homosexual behaviour. There was a classic case of this grating hypocrisy last week by the world's most prominent newspaper, The New York Times.


The Atlanta fire chief was fired because he contributed to a book that called homosexuality a "sexual perversion" equivalent to bestiality. Then, he made the mistake of believing he could distribute that book to some of his staff in the land of the free. The man is a conservative Christian who believes homosexuality is morally wrong and depraved. He said so in that book - which you would think any free-speech defender would say might be backward, yes, but he has the right to say so.

According to the twisted reasoning of his boss, Mayor Kasim Reed: "I believe his actions and decision-making undermine his ability to effectively manage a large, diverse workforce." He referred to the book's "inflammatory" content. An investigation after fire chief Cochran's suspension (before his final firing) found no evidence of his discriminating against gays in his more than 1,000-member staff.

And the Atlanta Professional Firefighters Association even issued a statement supporting the Christian's firing, saying they "support LGBT rights and equality among all employees". Now, what the hell does that have to do with a man merely expressing his opinion, however flawed? Since when does the expression of a point of view constitute an attack on people's rights? They have a right not to be offended? It is the same spirit that leads to terrorism, just that some people don't have the guts of those Muslim nuts.


The reputable New York Times, which strongly supports the right to offend and insult as a necessary part of free speech, had an editorial titled 'God, gays and the Atlanta Fire Department', on Tuesday, which said the Atlanta mayor "did the right thing" by firing Cochran. The Times says the issue is "not about free speech or religious freedom", but about "making sure that we have an environment in Government where everyone, no matter whom they love, can come to work from 8 to 5:30 and do their job and then go home without fear of being discriminated against".

Since when does expressing a view that homosexuality is morally wrong necessarily mean that people employed by the one expressing that view is liable for victimisation? So fundamentalist Christians who believe homosexuality is a perversion shouldn't hold public-sector management jobs? But hear this startling admission by the New York Times editorial writer (Remember I am talking about The New York Times, not some little rag): "It should not matter that the investigation found no evidence that Mr Cochran had mistreated gays or lesbians. His position as a high-level public servant makes his remarks especially problematic."

Yet people like these editorial writers go on, without the slightest indication of their galling inconsistency, to argue for the inviolable freedom of Charlie Hebdo journalists to offend and insult Muslims. But gays must not be offended or "harmed" emotionally. I say gays, blacks, Muslims, Christians and Jews should be lampooned, ridiculed and offended without any punishment except the public ostracism that should come from a decent, enlightened society. Let those who offend be seen for what they are - tasteless, graceless, unenlightened fools. But let them have their right.

I know many of you want to make exception with blacks, Jews and gays. But you can't eat your cake and have it. Either you say no right to offend Muslim extremists or Christian fundamentalists along with gays, blacks and Jews, or offend and insult anyone. On what basis is Islamophobia okay and homophobia not? White racists must have the right to publish what they want to say about my race. I am neither going to burn down their publication nor call for their incarceration. Publish whatever cartoons you want about Jesus. I am not going to be an avenger for Him or call for any blasphemy laws. I am sorry, Christian theonomists.

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer and whomever can say whatever they want about my Jesus or His Father. If the all-powerful God does not strike them dead, I certainly won't be doing so! Free speech is under threat not only in the Muslim world where there are blasphemy laws, but in the so-called free West, too. In France, itself, you can be locked up for denying the Holocaust. It was only in February last year that the French Supreme Court declared as unconstitutional a law that made it a crime to deny the 1915 Armenian genocide. Despite this, various French leaders have pledged to pass new measures to punish those denying the Armenians' historical claims.

Ireland has criminalised "the publication or utterance of blasphemous matter" which is "grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion". That is anti-democratic. In Britain, a 15-year-old girl was arrested two years ago because she burned the Koran. Britain prohibits "abusive or insulting words" that are "intended to stir up racial hatred". So why couldn't the Charlie Hebdo satirists be considered to have done exactly that by their vulgar and incendiary cartoons? Did they not incite violence, knowing what these Muslim fanatics are like?

Canada outlaws "any writing, sign or visible representation" that "incites hatred against any identifiable group". As the Washington Post says in an insightful piece published on October 12, 2012: "These laws ban speech based not only on its content, but on the reaction of others. Speakers are often called to answer for their divisive or insulting speech before bodies like the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal."

The article continues: "The much-misconstrued statement of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that free speech does not give you the right to shout 'fire' in a crowded theatre is now being used to curtail speech that might provoke a violence-prone minority. Our entire society is being treated as a crowded theatre." So we can't offend gay people or Muslims or Christian fundamentalists.

Free speech is an endangered species. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, "When some people use their freedom of expression to provoke or humiliate others values and beliefs, then this cannot be protected." That is a dangerous view, a slippery slope.

I agree with Christian Caryl, who says in a piece on the Foreign Policy website on January 9: "I don't see how you can possibly have a free society unless you allow for the possibility of disrespect. If any of us can shut down a conversation by claiming that we are offended or hurt by something someone else has said, there won't be any conversation."

We are deeply conflicted on this free-speech issue, and the hypocrites are out in full force over Charlie Hebdo.

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to and