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Choudray and free speech after Charlie Hebdo

The murder of Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris is truly horrific. One good that has come out if it, however, has been the outpouring of support for free expression, and the right to satirize and offend. Vive Charlie Hebdo, vive free speech.

But as Brendan O’Neill has pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, we in the West live in a climate of intolerance towards free speech, especially speech that is labelled “hate speech”. It will take some effort to turn things around and truly honor Charlie Hebdo by creating a social atmosphere that does not drop the commitment to free expression the moment an authority-figure or self-regarding mob says “I’m offended”.

Today, just one day after the attack, we already see a brief reminder of how tenuous this commitment can be.  Various people this morning are denouncing USA Today for publishing an opinion piece by Anjem Choudray,  the London-based radical Muslim cleric. Yesterday: defend free speech! Today: we didn’t mean everyone!

To be sure, the Choudray piece is vile. “Because the honor of the Prophet is something which all Muslims want to defend, many will take the law into their own hands, as we often see,” he writes. In other words, the journalists had it coming. Chourdray places the blame with the French authorities, for not censoring the publication in advance: “So why in this case did the French government allow the magazine Charlie Hebdo to continue to provoke Muslims, thereby placing the sanctity of its citizens at risk?” The not-so-subtle threat underlying this is: keep quiet or die.

But free speech includes speech like Choudray’s, even speech that calls for censorship. I certainly understand, and agree with, the outrage his op-ed caused, especially coming so soon after journalists were killed.  But there is a difference between rejecting an argument, and calling for it to not be expressed, and many crossed that line. “The editors at USA Today have lost their fucking minds,” tweeted Washington Post writer Radley Balko (who is otherwise an excellent reporter and defender of civil liberties). Conservative lawyer and radio host Jim Lockwood wrote: “Shame on you @usatoday for giving this radical Muslim a platform.”

But USA Today did the right thing. Not only did the newspaper allow free expression, it was, in my view, a wise decision. One of benefits of free exchange is that you know the arguments that you are up against – so better to defeat them. In this regard, USA Today provided an opportunity to Choudray to reveal how intolerant and morally deficient he really is. It is a deeply unfortunate fact that millions of people around the world share Choudray’s views. We should not shut out those opinions, however troubling we may find them.

Choudray’s essay (unintentionally) highlighted some arguments that defenders of free speech need to confront.  “Although Muslims may not agree about the idea of freedom of expression, even non-Muslims who espouse it say it comes with responsibilities,” he writes. How many times have we heard that free speech must be limited – say on campus, or at an art gallery - because the type of speech is “irresponsible”?  Choudray also writes: “Within liberal democracies, freedom of expression has curtailments, such as laws against incitement and hatred.” This is also, sadly, true across the US and Europe, including within France itself (where there are laws against “hate speech,” that is, speech that is considered anti-religious, racist or anti-gay).

Indeed, the remarkable thing is how many of Choudray’s arguments could have been lifted straight from non-Muslim writers in the pages of the New York Times or Guardian, when defending speech codes on campus or calling for  Duck Dynasty to be taken off TV.  Radical Islamists do not have a monopoly on voicing a thin-skinned sensitivity to perceived offense. Defenders of free speech have to tackle head-on the concept of “hate speech,” which today is the most common excuse given for crushing free expression. This is the case whether it is utilized by a radical Muslim cleric or a university president.

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