Editorial: Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech

In spite of the recent attacks in Paris, West Side Story looks into freedom of speech in France and whether or not the Charlie Hebdo depiction of the prophet Muhammad should have been censored.


Editor’s Note: This editorial was revised on April 26, 2022 to properly reflect AP Style guidelines regarding the spelling and capitalization of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The inclusion of “(PBUH)” following the Prophet Muhammad’s name is an abbreviation of “Peace be upon Him,” a universally used sign of respect among Muslims.

To clarify, this editorial focuses on Charlie Hebdo’s right to freedom of speech, not whether West Side Story supports the publication of this content.

In spite of the recent attacks in Paris, West Side Story looks into freedom of speech in France and whether or not the Charlie Hebdo depiction of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) should have been censored.

Charlie Hebdo has never been afraid to take satire to the next level, poking fun at religion, terrorism, and other social issues. These examples have landed them in trouble before. In 2011, the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo was firebombed after they released an issue with a picture of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

Freedom of speech is something guaranteed in America, but is it different in France? In Article 11 of France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, it is stated that “the free communication of thoughts and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of man.” The article itself doesn’t state any limitations, but says those who abuse the laws will be punished. In 1881, The Press Law of 1881 specified freedom of press in France.

The question is, do Article 11 and The Press Law of 1881 allow publications like Charlie Hebdo to publish offensive portrayals of major religious figures? Eleven of the thirteen members on the West Side Story editorial board say that yes, Charlie Hebdo had the right to publish such a portrayal.

The fact is if Charlie Hebdo was doing an illegal act, which they weren’t, in depicting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), why would the shooters act on this particular portrait? Why not any of the other many portrayals? It is not like this particular sketch was any more noticeable than the others.

As journalists, whether satiric or not, they have the right to speak their mind, and cover the news they feel is important. Just because Charlie Hebdo is a satirical newspaper doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taken seriously. Everyone’s voice should be heard, and that is their own right.

With every opinion will come disagreement, but violent disagreement is unethical. People who don’t agree with a particular news source have every right to speak their opinion but in this manner, it is unacceptable.

Charlie Hebdo was not abusing the rights of freedom given to them by the French government, and should be entitled to their own opinions and views, no matter how controversial they may be.