Houston Chronicle on free speech: Defend to the death

Houston Chronicle
Originally published Jan. 7, 2015

The masked gunmen who attacked the Paris publication Charlie Hebdo yesterday stand for nothing more than the most horrid scheme that villainy can invent, and fanaticism put into practice. We borrow those words from Voltaire, the Enlightenment-era satirical writer. He has passed, but his ideals of free speech live on. So will those of Charlie Hebdo.

The self-proclaimed “irresponsible newspaper” has long been the target of fundamentalist ire for its cartoons that portrayed the Prophet Muhammad in a preposterous light. Throughout the magazine’s history, few have been safe from its extraordinary mockery. Catholic organizations have condemned the paper for showing images of popes wearing condoms. Charlie Hebdo’s predecessor paper was banned by the French government for critiquing media coverage of former president Charles de Gaulle’s death.

Not all attempts to squelch speech come from the barrel of a gun.

France has long been the focus of laws against freedom of expression, from strict hate-speech legislation to laws that prohibit people from wearing religious garments in public. But it also has been home to some of history’s greatest free-speech advocates. Voltaire was punished and praised in his own age for writings that needled French royalty, politicians and religion. His ethos was best summed up by author Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

That quote gets tossed about a good deal in the hypothetical. For journalists it is a reality. More than 700 journalists have been killed worldwide since 2005. Last year alone, 119 journalists were kidnapped, 178 were imprisoned and 66 were killed, according to the nonprofit group Reporters Without Borders.

One doesn’t have to fly across the Atlantic to see speech silenced by bullets. A drive to Mexico can find a nation where journalists are on the front lines of a war against criminal cartels and corrupt government officials. At least 88 journalists were killed in Mexico from 2000 through 2013. Routine violence has become part of the job, whether photographers targeted by police while covering student protests or a radio host shot dead during a live broadcast after a career of critiquing local government. A longtime magazine editor was found dead in October last year after protesting a law that would have restricted the right to cover crimes. In September, a newspaper reporter was beaten bloody in her office by three assailants, who told her to stop “‘pissing everyone off” with her investigative writing.

Charlie Hebdo may have pushed at boundaries with its cartoons, but for many people the most threatening thing to publish is the truth.

Even in the United States, where we proudly tout our First Amendment rights, free speech faces frightening new challenges. Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, journalists have found themselves working in a stifling atmosphere where broad proclamations of national security are used to justify censorship and prosecution.

In May 2013, the Obama Justice Department seized without warning phone records from writers and editors at the Associated Press in an attempt to identify the source of a CIA leak.

James Risen of the New York Times, who twice has won a Pulitzer Prize, faces the possibility of jail time for refusing to reveal his sources in writing about the CIA.

Yet while our minds linger on free speech at home, our hearts are with Paris.

The streets of the French capital have been filled with protesters who silently hold up pens in solidarity with the satirical paper. Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, condemned the terrorist attack on behalf of French Muslims, calling it “an act of war in the middle of Paris.”

In this war, the barbarians who fight free speech will find themselves sorely outgunned. A bullet may silence a person, but speech gives birth to ideas that last beyond a single lifetime.