To Restrict Free Expression Is to Meet Ideas With Violence

Flaws in the Catholic League's statement on Charlie Hebdo

In a statement addressing the attack on the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, joined the chorus of people who condemned "killing in response to insult, no matter how gross." But unlike most commentators, he also declared that "Muslims are right to be angry," and that while what happened in Paris "cannot be tolerated, neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction."

Donohue was moved to write partly by his observation that the newspaper "intentionally insulted" Islam and other religions "over the course of many years." He is hardly alone in believing that many of these insults were offensive and unfair. Though I haven't delved deep into the publication's archives, I've seen enough to know that it published some material that I'd have felt ashamed to circulate. But Charlie Hebdo's journalists acted fully within their rights as humans—and offensive cartoons are among the easier things in life to ignore.

That's why I find the Catholic League's statement so deeply wrongheaded. While Donohue doesn't think that killing the cartoonists was a justified response to their work, his admonition that "we" as a society shouldn't "tolerate" them implies that it would be appropriate to stop blasphemy by way of a more official form of violence, like passing legislation against it and sending armed police officers to arrest or seize the property of anyone who violated such a law often enough.

"Why did France allow the tabloid to provoke Muslims?" a radical Muslim cleric asks in USA Today. The answer is simple enough: because no one has a right to stop them from exercising their natural right to express themselves as they see fit. When governments adhere inconsistently to a right to free expression, the proper way to resolve the inconsistency is to expand protections for freedom of expression.

It's unclear if Donohue grasps the implications of his position, but the fact is that while tolerating speech is consistent with disliking, criticizing, refuting, or denouncing it, a decision to stop tolerating speech requires shutting people up. We should tolerate offensive cartoons, however awful we find them, because using force to prevent cartoonists from expressing themselves is much worse—particularly if their bravery results in their murder, but also if they are only jailed or fined.

To restrict free expression is to meet ideas with violence.