Defending free expression doesn’t require republishing offensive material

News from Paris this week has shocked the world. Terrorists killed editors and cartoonists at a satirical publication called Charlie Hebdo. The assailants died in a standoff with police two days later. The overall death toll from the mayhem was 20.

The assault on Charlie Hebdo was apparently prompted by the newspaper’s cartoons mocking Islam. Other targets of the cartoonists’ pens included Jews, the pope and French politicians. Some of the cartoons’ imagery has been described as pornographic and racist.

U.S. news organizations have responded that the attack on Charlie Hebdo is an attack on freedom of expression. Deans of top journalism schools issued a statement condemning the “brutal assault on our colleagues in Paris.”

That view is widely shared, if not universally. The question of whether U.S. media should reprint Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons is more divisive, however.

The New York Times, for example, decided not to do so on the grounds that the caricatures were offensive. That led to this testy exchange on Facebook between the newspaper’s editor, Dean Baquet, and a journalism professor.

My daily newspaper, The News & Observer, has not reprinted any of the cartoons in its coverage of the Paris attack and has no plans to do so, according to editors there. The Raleigh paper has described the cartoons in news stories and written an editorial defending Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish them.

I believe that is the correct call. This situation reminds me of a Supreme Court case involving content that might offend readers of a mainstream publication like the N&O.

In 1988, the court ruled in Hustler v. Falwell that a satirical advertisement was protected speech under the First Amendment. Hustler magazine’s mock ad described an incestuous liaison in an outhouse between the Rev. Jerry Falwell and his mother. It included sexual, scatological and profane language that was typical to Hustler but not to daily newspapers.

In covering the court’s ruling in favor of Hustler, mainstream newspapers did not need to reprint the satirical ad. Doing so was not necessary to a full understanding of the topic. Describing the ad, as I have done here, is sufficient. Likewise, it is possible to write an editorial defending Hustler’s right of free expression without republishing the offensive material.

I suggest the same approach now: Provide comprehensive news coverage of the events and issues surrounding the violence in Paris. Publish strongly worded editorials on freedom of the press paired with evocative cartoons on the topic. That communicates a powerful message of freedom without publishing material that may offend some readers.

2 thoughts on “Defending free expression doesn’t require republishing offensive material

  1. Yep. I agree with most of what you say. I thought those cartoons were offensive. But no where near as offensive as people killing people like this.

    This is the problem, what’s offensive to one is not to another, hence the human condition, which can not be regulated or ruled.

    How do we live with our condition? Some of us do and some don’t. But murdering people like this, or purposely offending someone are both wrong.

  2. I think it makes sense to show what our defense of free speech is actually defending. I’d show it. I don’t think people really understand what free speech is until they see an extreme example. If the press won’t educate the people, who will?

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