It's been a year since the horrific Charlie Hebdo attack and the subsequent outpouring of defense of free speech from all quarters -- the insistence that free societies demand tolerance of viewpoints, even deeply offensive ones.
But immediately after the Hebdo attacks, France began systematically cracking down on free speech, in the name of fighting Islamic extremism. As it did so, most of the "free speech" advocates who'd trumpeted "Je Suis Charlie" fell silent, or worse, cheered on the crackdown.
Advocating for speech you agree with does not make you a defender of free speech. Defending free speech requires that you defend the right of speakers you vehemently disagree with.
In France, the post-Hebdo year has been an all-out assault of free speech, from the arrest and conviction of comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala over a Facebook posting that expressed sympathy for one of the gunmen. Dieudonné was later imprisoned in Belgium "for racist and anti-Semitic comments he made during a show." Dieudonné was one of dozens arrested in France after Hebdo for "hate speech" or "insulting religious faiths." French prosecutors were ordered to crack down on "hate speech, anti-Semitism and glorifying terrorism."
This manifested most sharply in attacks on Israel's political critics. France's highest court has upheld the criminal convictions of advocates for sanctions against Israel for hate speech, which consisted of protesting at grocery stores with signs that read "Long live Palestine, boycott Israel." Advocating against Israel has been deemed anti-Semetic in French law, which now criminalizes criticism of the regime and its actions in Gaza and the occupied territories.
France also instituted "emergency measures" (which the regime is attempting to make permanent) that let it shut down mosques, detain people without charge, and break into private homes without warrants. Though these powers were originally used against alleged Islamic extremists, they have been redeployed against climate activists. It's confirmation that the emergency measures are universal tools that can be used against anyone expressing a view the state objects to.
France has spent the past year demolishing fundamental free speech rights for everybody, in the name of fighting Islamic extremism, in the memories of those killed for expressing unpopular ideas at Charlie Hebdo. It's a shameful tribute to free speech martyrs, and the silence of the Je Suis Charlie politicians shows them up for the opportunists they were.
Where were, and where are, all the self-proclaimed free speech advocates about all of that? It was only when anti-Islam cartoons were at issue, and a few Muslims engaged in violence, did they suddenly become animated and passionate about free speech. That’s because legitimizing anti-Islam rhetoric and demonizing Muslims was their actual cause; free speech was just the pretext.
In all the many years I’ve worked in defense of free speech, I’ve never seen the principle so blatantly exploited for other ends by people who plainly don’t believe in it as was true of the Hebdo killings. It was as transparent as it was dishonest. Their actual agenda was illustrated by how they invented a brand new free speech standard specially for that occasion: in order to defend free speech, one must not merely defend the right to express an idea, they decreed, but must embrace the idea itself.
This newly-minted “principle” is, in fact, the exact antithesis of genuine free speech protections. Central to an actual belief in free speech rights is the view that all ideas – those with which one most fervently agrees and those one finds most loathsome and everything in between – are entitled to be expressed and advocated without punishment. The most important and and courageous free speech defenses have typically come from those who simultaneously expressed contempt for an idea while defending the rights of other people to freely express that idea. This is the principle that has long defined authentic free speech activism: those ideas being expressed are vile, but I will work to defend the right of others to express them.
Where Were the Post-Hebdo Free Speech Crusaders as France Spent the Last Year Crushing Free Speech? [Glenn Greenwald/The Intercept]
(Image: #MarcheDu11Janvier #JeSuisCharlie #MarcheRepublicaine Paris, Yann Caradec, CC-BY-SA)