Wash U Expert: Commitment to free speech doesn’t justify lashing out at innocents

A commitment to free speech doesn’t justify lashing out at innocent people, says a First Amendment expert at Washington University in St. Louis, in the wake of the terrorist attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in France.


“We need to keep two principles in our heads at the same time,” said Greg Magarian, JD, professor of law and noted expert on freedom of speech and of the press.

“Oppressing or burdening groups of people, especially numerical and/or political minorities, is intolerable,” he said. “And oppressing or burdening speakers because of what they say, whatever that may be, is intolerable.”

The key insight that many responses to the Charlie Hebdo attacks have missed, Magarian said, is that neither of those principles should, or must, mitigate the other.

“Many defenders of free speech, shocked and repulsed by the slaughter in Paris, have reacted by blaming Muslims wholesale for the attacks,” he said. “That posture is illogical and dangerous. Others have reflexively fought back by affirmatively embracing some of Charlie Hebdo’s anti-Muslim content. On an emotional level, it’s understandable to view the enemy of your enemy – here, the victim of your enemy – as your friend.

“But on a logical level it’s a non sequitur, and on a societal level it plays into Islamophobia. Most Muslims would never think of raising a hand, let alone a gun, against someone they saw as a blasphemer,” Magarian said. “But many of those Muslims would still find the blasphemy deeply hurtful and alienating. A commitment to free speech doesn’t justify us in lashing out at innocents.”

At the same time, Magarian said, the content of Charlie Hebdo’s speech should be irrelevant to our condemnation of the murderers.

“Too many liberals have followed rote recitations of free speech principle with stern condemnations of Charlie Hebdo’s Islamophobia. Two weeks ago I would have joined in those condemnations,” he said. “Now they sound gratuitous, and they carry an unavoidable lilt of blaming the victims.

“One reason we protect free speech is epistemic uncertainty: In Justice John Marshall Harlan’s brilliant words, ‘One man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric.’ As protectors of free speech, we need to close ranks around any speaker punished, let alone murdered, for his or her speech. Whatever our best understanding of that speech may be, free speech principles remind us that we may be wrong about it,” Magarian said.

“We shouldn’t embrace the content of Charlie Hebdo’s speech, and we shouldn’t condemn that content in connection with this attack,” he said. “We should simply embrace our Muslim brothers and sisters while condemning any attack on free speech.”