Ce que l’on conçoit bien, s’énonce clairement, Et les mots pour le dire arrivent aisément.

What is well designed, is expressed clearly, and the words to say it come easily.

Nicolas Boileau


The concept of freedom of speech seems to have been abused and misrepresented in recent days, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. This came to my attention based on something Joshua Sperber wrote in Counterpunch (itallics mine):

The issue couldn’t be clearer to the heralds of liberal idealism, as the Islamists are guilty of having inadequate reverence for the core Western value of free speech (although liberals tend to forget that freedom of speech concerns freedom from governmental, versus private, interference).

In the hysteria following this violence, I believe (classical) liberal and libertarian commentators fell into a trap of abandoning their most important principle: that of criticizing and opposing the power of government. In reality, liberals and libertarians are not supposed to oppose reprisals by private individuals against media entities, which is what happened at Charlie Hebdo. By siding with Charlie Hebdo against its attackers, liberals and libertarians are no longer attacking the state but taking aim at private individuals, insisting that the government must protect certain privileged media outlets from the outrage of the public and to ensure these media outlets’ freedom and security. This aspiration is opposed to the libertarian commitment to limited government or liberal models of freedom, and is actually a call for heightened power of government.

Freedom of speech bears no relationship to the idea of protecting people from lynch mobs or other repercussions from exercising that freedom. The moment the government begins to take sides in a dispute between private individuals or media entities, sanctioning those whom it disagrees with, it is then and only then that freedom of speech actually begins to be infringed upon. This has occurred just now, with government arrests of people who condoned or voiced support for the attacks against Charlie Hebdo. It is not Charlie Hebdo’s freedoms that have been infringed, but these people who have been arrested by the paranoid government.

The principle of free speech, as it has been written into the liberal constitution of state throughout the world, doesn’t contain any stipulations that people should be exempt from ridicule or even assassination as a consequence of their speech. Therefore, while the murderers against Charlie Hebdo are indeed guilty of monstrous depravity, murder and extremism, what they have done in no way infringes upon anyone’s freedom of speech. People are still free to make cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH): they simply bear a greater risk of being killed for doing that. Until the law actually contains provisions against depicting the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), no-one’s freedom of speech can yet be said to have been violated for that sake. However, we already have laws prohibiting other forms of offense, so even a law against depictions of revered religious figures would not actually undermine the liberal state order in any way, nor would I object if such a law went into effect.

People were always at risk of being killed for offending the wrong people’s sensibilities, even in the freest and most liberal societies. This natural situation has never been faulted or described as a threat to freedom of speech, until now.

What we are witnessing now is that the government is abusing the events of the Charlie Hebdo attack and the narrative surrounding it to alter the definition of freedom of speech away from private individuals or media outlets and towards protecting the state’s speech and the speech of the media outlets and “martyrs” the state supports. Charlie Hebdo’s “freedom of speech” is protected not because it is staffed by human beings or because it is a legitimate outlet, but because the government agrees with it and supports its activities. If you criticize the government, on the other hand, your freedom of speech is of comparatively little importance to the government. Charlie Hebdo’s freedom is safeguarded only because they are puppets and cheerleaders of the regime. They are the stooges, sychophants and poster-boys glorifying the scam of our decadent and flawed democracies.

If we quote “freedom of speech” principles to protect some journalists and political elites from reprisals from private individuals springing from the general public, we have lost the plot.

I can’t make this any clearer than to explain how the law really works: freedom of speech doesn’t protect anyone from having a rotten tomato or even a grenade thrown in their face. Freedom of speech only protects us journalists from being subjected to detention or other punishment by the authorities for what we have said. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, this did not happen. Therefore, the killing at Charlie Hebdo wasn’t a violation of freedom of speech in any way. It simply qualified as a public backlash against Charlie Hebdo’s publishing, which has seriously offended elements of the public.

To lazily surmise the attacks on Charlie Hebdo were attacks on free speech is to conflate free speech with the state-sanctioned propaganda splashed on our television screens, and conflate so-called “terrorists” with an imaginary state or totalitarian caliphate cracking down on its own citizens.

We must not be brainwashed by government propaganda, or we will be no better than the most rotten fascists and architects of state “security”.


By Harry J. Bentham

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