Charlie Hebdo and the argument of freedom of expression

Would restricting the illustrations of Charlie Hebdo conflict with the goals and values of freedom of expression? Who should decide what to restrict and manage in the content of the Internet? Should these restrictions be reflected in law?

The publication of satirical cartoons in French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, generated domestic debate surrounding the placement of Muslims and the boundaries of freedom of expression within contemporary French society. However, the illustrations caused such significant offence to the Muslim community that the events were scrutinised internationally. Critics of Hebdo, mainly French Muslims, called for strict regulation over expression acts within French law. The subsequent violent backlash, the killing of 12 people, implies the immorality of the illustrations, but does such immorality justify the restricting of such expressions?

The events of Hebdo unfolded in the homogenous secular culture of France, a society with a minuet tolerance for religious expression. A political context where Muslims have experienced deep criticism directly to their religious beliefs, i.e. ban the burqa campaign. Thus, it is plausible as to why French Muslims took offence to yet another harmful portrayal of their religion. France alone possesses the second largest population of Muslims within Europe, 7.5%. Such a significant figure validates the exploration of restriction on freedom of expression in France, with the hope of establishing boundaries of respect and religious sensibilities.

To an extent, Hebdo defamed the Prophet, which is inherent to Muslim identity and historically linked to Western oppression of Muslims. The vilification of the Prophet in the illustrations present as morally problematic. One of the illustrations portrayed the Prophet crying, with the text translating into English “Muhammad, overwhelmed by fundamentalists… it’s hard to be loved by so many idiots”. The offence is deemed significant by Muslims, however, insignificant to those who reject religion or identify as an autonomous democratic citizen. It’s clear that the conception of offence and harm is vastly different in both cultures. The illustrations do not constitute a moral disvalue which would outweigh justifications for restrictions. However, a limitation on speech acts does not promise effectively easing or countering Muslim oppression. Ending racism is a completely different argument.

The issue at hand occurred within the democratic structures of contemporary France and freedom of expression is quintessential within a working democracy and imperative for autonomous individuals to function. The illustrations are responsible for highlighting a lack of autonomy within Muslim culture, an extreme contrast to the values the French majority hold. JS Mill offers a concise argument for complete freedom of expression as he sees the silencing of expression robbing the chance of humans to exchange error for truth, and by silencing discussion is an assumption of infallibility, an assumption so outdated it can only be applied to religion. By adopting Mill’s passion for free speech, the illustrations challenged the “deep slumber of decided [Muslim] opinion” surrounding freedom of expression. In order for a legitimate democracy to function, society must be able to discuss all opinions of a current truth to reveal whether or not it can be deemed moral or immoral.

As rational beings, we must respectfully recognise the portrayal of the Prophet in Charlie Hebdo as offensive to the Muslim community. The hostile and ultimately deadly reaction of the French minority, justifies the call for banning hate speech. Hate speech has the capacity to cause legitimate harm, however, it’s almost impossible to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate harm as the severity depends on personal perspective and context of the offence.

I have applied the events of Charlie Hebdo to Robert Admur’s ‘framework of concern’ in order to better understand the most adequate moral reason for justifying restriction of expression. Admur concludes expressions that invoke a false belief and cause harmful consequences, are worthy of concern. Both forms of harm were executed after the illustrations were published, the latter greater in extent. The principles in freedom of expression can encourage disrespect for religious feelings as it doesn’t demand moral constraints that would restrict such discourse. However, as mentioned by JS Mill’s, the idea of truth has to be challenged to decipher wrong opinion from matter of fact.

Although the illustrations insulted and humiliated French Muslims, there’s simply not enough moral reason to restrict these forms of expression on the basis of harm and intimidation. The unlawful reaction to the illustrations emphasise the disregard of values found within democracy and the failures a hostile censorship holds. The act of free speech nurtures creative intelligent individuals that challenge unfamiliar opinions in order to better understand society and discover truth, a quality imperative to a flourishing diverse society.

There’s no such thing as absolute ‘free’ speech, every society has speech limited for the sake of order and basic civility. This is where the grey area begins, as democracy dangles liberty in front of intellectual and official hands, we are left wondering who should restrict and manage content deemed offensive? The idea of citizens functioning as individually sovereign is fickle. If we hand over the role of control to governments, the fair regulation of political expression and long term benefits of free discussion (ample knowledge and widespread intellect) is not guaranteed. As knowledge is exchanged through social interactions, an autonomous society relies upon reliable sources, which are generally successfully established by the control and constriction of hierarchies found within large-scale organisations.

If we, the people are to be controlled, then is it our job to do the controlling? It seems justifiable to restrict expression through the formation of a free government, by self-governing in the sense that not all citizens are freely speaking, but everything that is worthy will be said. The perfect combination of a self-governing society with Kantian’s conception of autonomy justifies the right to freedom of expression while it at the same time requires that we exercise this right by respecting others as equals.

It’s obvious the cartoons were part of a hate fuelled discourse. Hebdo powerfully symbolise freedom of expression and directed offence to a minority already feeling displaced from French society. JS Mill justifies the publications actions as challenging the ‘dead’ truths woven within the Muslim religion. In the search for the perfect balance of control of expression, we are asked to weigh up equality and democracy while avoiding harm. If we accept that implications of censorship and restrictions on our expressions will hinder our ability to access information, individuals will have the tools to self-govern society as rationally autonomous human beings.

Reference List

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