Freedom of Speech, Not Freedom From Consequences

Freedom-of-ExpressionSource: New York Times

By Yousef Munayyer is a Palestinian-American writer and analyst.

Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from its consequences. The ideal of freedom of speech is one well worth defending but it can only be guaranteed in a perfect world and sadly, as we have seen throughout 2014 and in the early days of 2015, our world is far from perfect.

Writers and artists should be able to express themselves provocatively, but what they will provoke is impossible to know.

The heinous attacks and murders in Paris are the responsibility of the killers alone. Freedom of speech, however, is upheld by certain rules and laws in our society and governments and there is always going to be a minority who refuse to play by the rules. This reality means that merely having a public profile and expressing views on contentious issues can put one at risk.

Should writers and artists be able to express themselves in any way they choose even if it is provocative and offensive? Sure, but they should also expect that provocative expressions will provoke and what exactly it provokes is impossible to know.

Each writer, artist and publisher must decide for themselves which risks they are willing to take. Those who died in Paris knowingly took a risk and died. Did they expect that? I don’t know. Did they deserve that? Certainly not! Could they have avoided such provocations? Yes. But should they have?

My writing often focuses on Palestinian rights and you might be able to imagine the hate mail I get. Every unfamiliar letter, package or knock at the door I receive raises a troubling question in my mind; what if this is one I shouldn’t open? I live with that question as do countless people every day who write publicly on emotional issues. The hope is that the contentious convictions you espouse are ones that are truly worth taking on risks for.

For me, freedom and equality for Palestinians is worth taking on risks to espouse. Gratuitous insults at venerated religious figures and others employing sometimes racist and disparaging images is not, simply because it adds nothing of any value to the public discourse. I am well aware that the staff of Charlie Hebdo believed otherwise, and paid the ultimate price for it.

It must also be noted that there is a hypocritical tension around free expression in France, where Islamophobic speech is protected and yet Muslims cannot dress freely in certain public spaces.

I respect the right of Charlie Hebdo to express what they want while simultaneously having no respect for most of the distasteful content they produced. If only more people could see that these two views are not mutually exclusive we would be in a better place. Unfortunately, we are not there yet.


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