Publish or pulp: the return of Charlie Hebdo

Don’t tell Socrates: the right to speak out without reprisal dates back to ancient Athens © Getty

Should Charlie Hebdo have republished cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad? In 2015, they provoked a terrorist attack — and their return threatens to reignite a ferocious debate over free speech.

For France, it was the dawning of an annus horribilis.

On 7 January 2015, brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi stormed into the Paris office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and opened fire. They left 12 people killed and 11 wounded.

The assault was sparked by the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam. In Muslim doctrine, any depiction of Muhammad is blasphemy. For the Islamist Kouachis, Charlie Hebdo’s images constituted an attack on their faith.

The tragedy soon became a flashpoint in a global debate on freedom of speech. Around six million people tweeted “Je suis Charlie”, supporting the magazine’s ability to publish without constraint. Others responded with “Je ne suis pas Charlie”, signalling unease with the provocative cartoons.

This week, to mark the trial of 14 individuals suspected of planning the attack, Charlie Hebdo has reprinted the pictures. With them, it has reignited the debate. Should we be able to say — and publish — whatever we like?

Free speech is a sacrosanct pillar of Western democracies. In 1948, it was enshrined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is because of free speech, its defenders argue, that we can criticise, challenge and expose the crimes and corruption of those in power.

By stopping the governments from controlling all information that circulates, free speech allows us to form our own opinions — even when they might clash with those of others. For some, this extends being allowed to mock everything, including religious beliefs. “There is in France”, says Emmanuel Macron, “a freedom to blaspheme, which is linked to freedom of conscience.”

Others would claim that we should exercise our freedoms with discretion. The Victorian philosopher John Stuart Mill formulated the harm principle, arguing that we should not act freely when we might hurt others. Regardless of their motivation, if republishing such scurrilous cartoons could cause harm — whether by insulting Muslim people, instilling prejudice or, even, as happened in 2015, inciting violence — they should remain shelved.

Critics could also point out the hypocrisy of societies that promote some forms of expression but punish others. In France, you can be fined for booing the national anthem, raising the question: why can a figure sacred to Muslims face mockery but not something valued by another demographic? An important rule of free speech is that we show equal respect to all groups, even those we might disagree with.

So, should Muhammad have returned to Charlie Hebdo?

Hold the press!

Oui, some would say. The right to speak freely is what sets democracies apart from repressive dictatorships. A plurality of opinions helps promote fruitful debate. And whatever one thinks of the cartoons, the freedom of the press to publish them should be defended to the hilt as a sign of a fair society. If you’re offended, c'est la vie — you can exercise your own free speech and launch a critique.

Non, argue others — and not just because their previous appearance led to tragedy. Free speech is important, but we also have a duty to remain silent when speaking may promote hate. There is a difference between stoking debate and fuelling division. Whether or not Charlie Hebdo intends to encourage prejudice against Muslims, the possibility that it might is reason enough to pulp it.

You Decide

  1. Can offending others ever be helpful?
  2. Does freedom of speech contain the freedom to lie?


  1. Write a list of 10 rights that you believe every human should have, and put them in order of importance.
  2. You are the editor of a newspaper. Write an email to your writers laying out what you will and will not publish.

Some People Say...

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

John Milton (1608-1674), English poet and pamphleteer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that freedom of speech is a cornerstone of Western democracy. Emerging in 5th-century Athens, it became a cause célèbre during the Enlightenment, and has been celebrated by liberal thinkers from John Locke to Tim Garton Ash, and enshrined in the constitutions of numerous countries. Traditionally viewed as a socially liberal value, in recent years there have been many conflicts between those who believe that freedom of speech should be regulated to avoid hate against sections of society and those who believe it should be untrammelled.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate today concerns the legitimacy of free speech’s assumed benefits. Liberal thinkers have long believed that freedom of speech allows for the advancement of knowledge and the peaceful facilitation of positive changes. However, there are growing trends such as the emergence of anti-immigration politics across the West and the spread of political misinformation over social media. They problematise the idea that free speech necessarily leads to a better-informed, less divided society.

Word Watch

Annus horribilis
A Latin phrase meaning “horrible year,” made famous by Queen Elizabeth II in the 1990s. In November 2015, 130 more Parisians were killed in a second wave of terrorist attacks.
Intended to ridicule shortcomings in society. It was once mistakenly thought to derive from the ancient Greek “satyr” plays about creatures that were half-man, half-goat.
The act of insulting a God or other sacred object. A capital offence in several, largely Muslim-majority countries, in Britain it remained a punishable crime until 2008.
An advocate of Islamic fundamentalism. Often used in the West to describe those who believe in imposing Sharia (Islamic law) on societies.
Freedom of speech
The right to say, write and communicate thoughts and ideas without fear of censorship or reprisal.
Inviolable or beyond criticism. It derives from two Latin words, “sacro” and “sanctus”, that both have religious connotations.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Organised by the United Nations in 1948, this document enshrines the rights and freedoms of all human beings. Although not legally binding, it provides the foundations of human rights laws in many countries.
Emmanuel Macron
The current president of France, nicknamed “Jupiter” after the chief of the Roman deities for his top-down manner of governance.
Insulting, scandalous language. According to the 18th-century Dictionary of Samuel Johnson, “using such language as only the licence of a buffoon can warrant”.

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