The horrible massacre of the editors of Charlie Hebdo forces us to recall the nature of the freedom of speech.
This freedom has been named ‘the queen of liberties’. Its roots can be traced back to the time of the Enlightenment, during which the modern notions of democracy and human rights were born.
Opinions that are popular need no legal protection. If freedom of speech is to mean something, it must include the right to express even what may be disgusting for many. Voltaire’s refrain is well known: “I disagree with your ideas but I would gladly give my life to defend your right to express them”.
Is it then the case that freedom of speech cannot be subject to any restriction? It is not. There are very few absolute human rights, that is, rights which can never be derogated from or limited. Examples are: the right to physical and psychological integrity and the correlative prohibition of torture and of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishments; the prohibition of slavery; freedom of conscience. Such is not the case of civil liberties, including freedom of speech.
The fact that civil liberties may be legitimately restricted does not mean that they are less important. The reason is that they can collide with other rights or with general values. So, freedoms may be restricted – if it is strictly necessary- in order to protect the rights of others, to ensure compliance with the law, or to safeguard national security, public order, public morals and public health. Freedom of speech is subject to an additional restriction: hate speech, that is, expressions that call for discrimination or racial or religious hatred, are prohibited.
Against this background the question is whether or not the mocking of religions, which abounded in Charlie Hebdo’s pages, amounted to hate speech against Islam or its followers. (Needless to say, even if it did nothing could possibly justify the abominable slaughter of their workers).
The answer has been given by the European Court of Human Rights in several cases of blasphemy. The Court established that an expression may be restricted as blasphemous only if it has no discernible content (artistic, critical or informative) other than the sheer insulting of a given religion or of its symbols.
In reaction to these views religious extremists often stress the value of cultural relativity or else they argue that freedom of speech is a Western imposition. About the former, respect for cultural identity has its limits in the observance of human rights. Regarding the Western origins of freedom of expression, it may well be the case; however, human rights and democracy are notions that tend to be accepted globally. If some religious extremists deny others the freedom to criticize their beliefs, too bad for them. Those who believe in human rights and in an ample freedom of speech need not apologize for their convictions.