Dying for freedom of expression

The attack on magazine Charlie Hebdo reminds us all that freedom of expression is a right worth defending

“Je suis Charlie” has become a statement of support for those who stand with the people of France following the Jan. 7 terror attacks on the offices of satire magazine Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent manhunt and hostage situations following. Certainly not all of those making the proclamation agree with what Charlie Hebdo had to say, but it’s not about the politics, it’s about the expression. “Je suis Charlie” is a proclamation that freedom of expression is vitally important. When as many as three million gathered across France to express their support, they made that much clear.

(_timl/ Flickr Commons)

(_timl/ Flickr Commons)

Charlie Hebdo was provocative and offensive to many, to say the very least. The magazine didn’t pull any of its punches. In fact, it looked for the sore spot and aimed for it. When it was met with a violent response in 2011, when its offices were firebombed, it doubled down and used its publication to attack those who responded with violence. It did this repeatedly and seemingly without fear of reprisal, and it did so because it knew the power of the almighty pen. It knew how ridiculous a violent response to the written word would be. I’m sure those who worked there, including the magazine’s editor Stéphane Charbonnier, who was among those killed, also knew how possible such an attack could be. But they kept on publishing.

I have a certain amount of respect for those who stir up controversy with their words alone. Those who challenge the status quo are those who keep us from complacence and mediocrity. They’re not always right, they’re rarely politically correct and their actions almost always offend someone. Is it the most responsible way to express ideas? No, but it is effective.

You don’t have to aim for the sore spot to provoke such a disproportionate response, though. I’m reminded of TRU’s own freedom of expression incident that occurred in 2012. Its consequences were nowhere near as dire, but they weren’t good, either.

The artwork of Sooraya Graham was once pulled from the walls of TRU. Her photograph featured a woman wearing a niqab holding a bra by the straps and looking down at it. As we reported in April 2012, Graham’s artwork had been taken down by a TRU World advisor. But it wasn’t the university that asked for it to be taken down. The university’s response was a condemnation of the act and called for the art’s reinstallation, promising to cover all costs related to damage.

But Graham’s story didn’t end once the artwork was reinstalled. The story drew the eyes of the world’s media. Stories appeared in CBC, the Daily Mail, the National Post and more. Eventually, the discussion slowed to a halt, but not for Graham. As reported in April 2013, Graham received death threats via email, was followed around on campus and her car was vandalized. She had been rattled by the experience and the attention she received over her artwork and needed antidepressants and anxiety medication as a result. Finally, she abruptly left Kamloops behind in her fourth year of university before completing her degree. The response to Graham’s artwork was a measure of its success, but she didn’t set out to be bullied and intimidated and she didn’t deserve to be.

For most, it’s easy to agree that Graham’s situation was undeserved. But let’s face it, it’s not always easy to defend someone’s freedom of expression. Take, for example, the Westboro Baptist Church – the American group behind acts like protesting the funerals of gay soldiers while holding signs that read “God hates fags,” or worse. The group is rarely met with violence, but instead often encounters other groups like the Patriot Guard Riders, an organization formed to drown out the protests of the Westboro Baptists by waving flags in front of their signs and singing over their chants.

I couldn’t imagine a better response. The Westboro Baptists have endured a number of freedom of speech-related lawsuits, and legally, it appears that they stand on solid ground. It must be hard to champion the rights of people with such despicable views, but I’m thankful that they are around to test the limits – just as I am thankful to Charlie Hebdo for all it has done for freedom of expression, especially in the face of very real threats.

One Response

  1. Greg Kovacs Jan. 20, 2015