How Bigotry is Excused Under the Guise of Free Speech

Does the Right to Express Become the Argument to Justify Intolerance

By Janelle Norman

In the aftermath of the shooting at the Charlie Hebdo publication office that resulted in 12 deaths, people are outraged that anyone’s freedom of speech could be result in such a tragedy.

Granted, as a writer I fully support freedom of speech. I appreciate that I have the right to express my opinion on various different platforms without prosecution. Needless to say, I also would hate to be killed for my beliefs, so condolences to all who were killed.

However, one disturbing thing about this incident is that it made me notice a pattern. In the wake of a new civil rights movement, we have plenty of incidents where the freedom of speech of protestors and activists weren’t defended with the same fervor.

To see protesters in Ferguson sprayed with tear gas and shot with rubber bullets while the rest of the world generalizes them as thugs and rioters makes me wonder, where is the same support for freedom of speech?

When the Ram’s players arrived to the stadium with their hands up, a harmless gesture to show solidarity, people entirely ripped them apart. In addition to “#RamsFansNoMore” trending on twitter, the STLPD demanded an apology from the team. Nobody but the supporters of the movement argued that it was their right to protest.

We recently witnessed thousands of NYPD officers break a chain of command by turning their backs on Mayor de Blasio. The NYPD also booed the Mayor at a police graduation. Many police officers even wrote letters to the Mayor, banning him at their funerals if they were ever killed on duty. The NYPD protest even resulted in a slowdown, where cops refused to make arrests unless it’s “absolutely necessary.”

All of this commotion was caused by de Blasio openly admitting that he told his son what millions of other parents tell their children, “Be extra cautious around the police.”

These events made me come to the realization that freedom of speech is an argument often used to protect bigots from consequences or excuse prejudice behavior. The victims involved in the Charlie Hebdo shootings may not have deserved to die for their beliefs, but I refuse to defend islamophobia and racism under the guise of free speech, especially when the same support isn’t reciprocated for the people who publicly fight for marginalized people.

To my understanding, freedom of speech in journalism was historically used to provide a platform for the voiceless and the marginalized. It was used to spread awareness of issues in communities that didn’t have the means to get the support they needed. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t consider it brave or admirable for a French magazine to use their platform to demonize people who are already stigmatized.

With France’s reputation of islamophobia, most notably the ban on burqas and the desecration of French mosques over the years, it’s safe to say that publications further encourage the discrimination that France’s Muslim community already experiences.

I can’t help but be disappointed at people rewarding the magazine or playfully passing it off as satire, while anti-islam discrimination has worsened in France after the incident. I’m saddened by the fact that free speech is mainly used to protect those who already have the largest platforms.

I’ve seen an unanimous urge for people like Anthony Cumia and Donald Sterling who have made prejudice statements to be protected while there is either complete silence or support of the defamation of public figures who speak out against social injustice.

I’ve come to the conclusion that nobody truly supports freedom of speech in its entirety unless we agree with what’s being said or done. When a public figure says something that offends us, our first reaction isn’t to respectfully disagree because it’s their right to express themselves.

With that being said, I can’t help that assume that if you supported Hebdo’s xenophobia and islamophobic illustrations, it’s more about your solidarity with its bigotry than the genuine support of free speech.

It isn’t necessary to defend the magazine’s content just because you don’t believe that anyone deserves to die for expressing their opinions. And yes, we can openly acknowledge how awful and harmful a lot of the content Charlie Hebdo published are while we express our condolences. To me, open and honest discourse, as opposed to reactionary support of blatant intolerance, is true freedom of speech.

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