Some thoughts on press freedom and the Charlie Hebdo affair

I have trouble seeing how freedom of speech or of the press is consistent with an obligation to publish something. Yesterday, the Paris offices of the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo was attacked by three men with weapons who slew 12 people, one of them a policeman. Today, complaints are appearing about news organizations’ declining to print or distribute reproductions of any of the Muhammad-ridiculing cartoons that the journal has published. I’m not convinced that their decision is a problem at all, and if it is, it doesn’t seem to be of the first order. The first-order problem is that extremists have once again killed people who didn’t share their belief—in this case, the belief that the Prophet must not be depicted. Do we need to see any of the images in order to understand that? I don’t think so. Is there a risk that, unless I (or The New York Times) publish them, they’ll go unseen? That was the case with the Sony Pictures film The Interview, which had not yet been released when hackers issued threats against any theater that showed it, but it’s not the case here. Charlie Hebdo has a history of publishing such cartoons; the cover of its latest issue, which derived from ideas in a new novel by Michel Houellebecq, was reproduced yesterday in the first news story I happened to read (this was in the Times, by the way); and today, without even looking for them, I’ve seen reproductions of many of the journal’s other graphics. So perhaps it’s a question of completeness: the Times, along with the AP newswire and the New York Daily News and a number of other organizations, can be charged with not reporting the story in full if they don’t give examples of the images that Charlie Hebdo has published. But there is a principle in question, at least in the case of the Times, which declared in an email to BuzzFeed reporters (as reported here) that “we do not normally publish images or other material deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities.” One can disagree with that principle or with its interpretation in this case, but to hold the principle and to act on it doesn’t violate freedom of speech or freedom of the press. Those are moral ideas as well as legal ideas. In the realm of law, we ought to remember that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t declare the press to have absolute freedom, only that the government shall not abridge the press’s freedom. There are legal protections against murderous fanatics, but they aren’t provided by the First Amendment. Even as a moral idea, freedom of the press entails the freedom not to publish, and it’s contradictory to claim, as Terry Teachout among others have done, that the Times (and the other organizations) must uphold that freedom by republishing cartoons: where there’s compulsion, there’s no freedom.

More can be said about these matters. Should theater owners have borrowed some courage and exposed their property and workers to the threat of attack when it came time to decide whether to show The Interview? Should the Times et al. have taken a poll of employees on the subject of the cartoons and then done whatever the vote indicated? Should it simply have dropped its principle, told everyone in the newsroom that journalism is not a safe profession, and published away? Others appear to have no difficulty in answering these questions, but I do.

Because shingles is affecting my ability to concentrate, that’s all I’ll say for now.

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3 thoughts on “Some thoughts on press freedom and the Charlie Hebdo affair

  1. I don’t believe that it’s a question of obligation, but of journalistic rigor. For the Times to decline to publish the offending cartoons because they’re not believed necessary to a full reporting of a story, but to publish instead explicit photographs of a violent shooting (as they did on the front page today — and was this necessary to the full reporting of the story, or just an exploitation of this violence so that it’s prominently visible on newsstands?) is to try to have it both ways. The Times publishes enough offensive material every day in one way or another, including that photograph.

    Of course they don’t have the moral obligation to publish the graphics, nor should they be compelled to; it’s their newspaper and their principles. But if their stated editorial position on the matter is also that “It is absurd to suggest that the way to avoid terrorist attacks is to let the terrorists dictate standards in a democracy,” it certainly shouldn’t dictate editorial standards in a democracy either. Journalism is a dangerous profession, as organizations like “Reporters Without Borders” demonstrate each day.

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  2. Thanks for the comment, George. I think there’s a problem with that “give no religious offense” principle, on its own and also because other forms of potential offense appear to matter less or not at all. But I didn’t feel up to analyzing those things. Shingles is very tiring.

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