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Going ‘all in’ on free speech takes backbone

op frI watched world leaders with arms linked lead a march of about 1.5 million people in Paris to commemorate the ideals of free speech following the massacre at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo by Muslim terrorists. I read about the outpouring of support for the newspaper’s gutsy cartoons that lampooned — in addition to Islamic terrorism — anything and everything.

And then I sought out the cartoons that infuriated so many Muslims so I could see for myself what kind of artwork could engender such emotion. If you haven’t looked, you may or may not want to take the time to do it. These are rough, sometimes vulgar images that are cringe-worthy. Satire has always been one of the cruelest forms of free expression because at its best it insults your sensibilities to get a message across. And these cartoons are insulting.

National and international pundits are pouring out their views on this attack, and I’ve read dozens of articles and opinion pieces. As the publisher and editor of a small weekly in the mountains of Western North Carolina, I’ve been fascinated and consumed by the whole free speech debate. I’ve also been intrigued by how a small, little-known journalistic endeavor like Charlie Hebdo could suddenly be thrust into the worldwide spotlight. It’s a fringe publication, and somewhere on the fringe is probably where it should have remained. 

The murdering terrorists, however, have turned it into a symbol for free speech that will go down in history.

My first free speech awakening happened back during the Watergate hearings in the summer of 1973. I was 13 years old, and in the 100-degree heat of eastern North Carolina an air-conditioned living room was a peaceful respite on June and July afternoons. Only problem was that all the networks — all three channels, that is — were showing the hearings. 

Watching those hearings led me to read the follow-up stories in the local newspaper in Fayetteville, and the reality that the work of a couple of reporters could almost singlehandedly bring down a president left a powerful impression on me. I imagined a career in journalism as something meaningful.

Watergate is one prime example of why the West — and I would argue the U.S. in particular — has an almost quasi-religious passion for protecting free speech and freedom of the press, a fervor that is not shared by many other parts of the world. 

Many of those who marched in Paris were protesting the killing of innocents as much as they were sending a message about free speech. But the two beliefs go hand in hand. If you don’t protect and fight for the right to criticize leaders — political, religious, cultural or corporate — then innocent people end up at the mercy of those leaders. It happens all over the world.

Ultimately, going all in on free speech means we have to accept the distasteful and outrageous while believing that open debate will lead a majority of reasonable people to choose the right path. Those leading that Paris march and the rest of us must make room for bigots and racists to spread their message. As much as we hate it, that’s part of the bargain, that’s the underbelly of the beast. But the choice is clear.

As one pundit put it, and I’m paraphrasing: no one deserved to die for those cartoons, but many of those cartoons sucked. Indeed.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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