Letter to the Editor: Freedom of Speech Includes the Freedom to Offend
Juris Diction’s rather confounding editorial, “Are we really Charlie Hedbo?”, seems to simultaneously promote the value of freedom of speech, à la Charlie Hebdo, and to endorse censorship of “offensive” expression. This position, while logically capable of conceptual reconciliation, stems from a misunderstanding about the role of freedom of speech in any free and democratic society.
The editorial encourages the publication of articles that diverge from the mainstream in accordance with the ideals of Charlie Hebdo. Yet it includes a requirement that the French paper does not: a contribution cannot be “racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise offensive.” One of many problems with this kind of censorship is that what is “offensive” is, by nature, a wildly subjective question. Consider the publication of a pro-life opinion piece. To some, this viewpoint might be both sexist and deeply offensive. On the other hand, the publication of a pro-choice article might be similarly offensive to a religious student. Moreover, students who strongly value freedom of speech might be offended by the fact that Juris Diction refuses to re-print the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, or that it refuses to print anything that its editors deem “offensive”.
Meaningful political discourse often has the potential to offend someone. An insightful, interesting, or intriguing contribution to any political, social, or economic debate will often challenge, scrutinize and cause discomfort. Surely we should not be barred from contributing to Juris Diction on the basis of someone possibly taking offense.
In Canada, and perhaps at Queen’s Law, there is censorship of some kinds of offensive expression. Of course, it is those who are vested with the power of popular opinion who may, and often do, censor. Might “offensive” simply be a synonym for speech that is politically unpopular at any given time in history? Further, what is the purpose of protecting freedom of speech if we do not protect politically unpopular opinions? How can a newspaper claim to promote freedom of speech, the same values promoted by Charlie Hebdo, if it refuses to print materials that some claim are “offensive”? A pledge to only print articles that are not offensive renders Juris Diction’s support for freedom of speech disingenuous and vacuous.
It is also worth scrutinizing the contention that censorship of offensiveness promotes public goods, such as tolerance and multiculturalism. Censorship might change what people say in public, but does it change what they think? Or might it indirectly encourage more persuasive, less obviously offensive speech in public forums? Does it hide the unpalatable views that might exist in a society, shielding them from public criticism? Does it breed suspicion? Does it weaken confidence in our beliefs, knowing that those beliefs are not free to be challenged in certain ways? And who is to decide what you should or should not read? Censors ought to have good answers to these questions.
The editorial’s contradiction, simply put, is this: Juris Diction refuses to print the Charlie Hebdo cartoons on the basis of their “offensiveness”. But in the final paragraph, the editorial passionately encourages its readers and potential contributors to endorse the ideals of Charlie Hebdo. Who among us is “deterred” from expressing “politically correct” opinions? Who is “scared” of speaking when it does not cause offense?
I am not arguing that the editors of Juris Diction should necessarily publish pieces that are only intended to offend. They have the right to publish whatever they want. But if Juris Diction wants to endorse the ideals of Charlie Hebdo by deepening dialogue and debate, how can they avoid politically incorrect or “offensive” opinions?
The most meaningful way to advance debate is to challenge our convictions by engaging with opinions with which we fundamentally disagree. Importantly, we must expose ourselves to viewpoints that we find unpalatable, and even deeply offensive. For how can we understand the merits of our own positions if they are not free to be fearlessly debated, scrutinized, and challenged?
To truly stand with Charlie Hebdo means to encourage the publication of speech that might be offensive to some. The alternative is to fail to meaningfully understand what Charlie Hebdo stands for. If Juris Diction and the students of Queen’s Law really want to stand with Charlie Hebdo, they should be open to removing the ban on offensive publications. Anything less is mere lip service, for it is easy to support a cause when it costs one nothing. Genuinely living by the ideals of Charlie Hebdo would require Juris Diction to publish a wide variety of opinions, including those that its editors and readers regard as offensive.