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Feb. 12, 2015 Volume 36, No. 19

Experts discuss free expression in wake of Charlie Hebdo attack

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Sandra Davidson, professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and the School of Law, was one of four speakers at the event. Photo by Rob Hill.

School of Journalism and RJI host symposium

On Jan. 7, two Islamist extremists killed 12 people in the office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The magazine, known for, among other things, its controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, was the target of another terrorist attack in 2011. Arising out of the aftermath of the 2015 attack, supporters of free expression adopted the slogan “Je suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie.”

On Feb. 3, the Missouri School of Journalism and Reynolds Journalism Institute hosted a symposium to discuss issues related to free expression in the wake of the attack.

Speakers included:

  • Sandra Davidson, professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and the School of Law
  • Kahlil Bendib, political cartoonist
  • Aidan White, director of the Ethical Journalism Network
  • Marty Steffens, professor at the Missouri School of Journalism

The consensus among speakers was that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons demonstrate how complicated the issue of free expression is.

Davidson, a press law expert, gave the standing-room-only crowd a brief overview of Supreme Court decisions that have curtailed freedom of speech in the United States, including the 1969 Brandenburg v. Ohio case, which limited expression when intended and likely to incite violence.

“I may disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” Davidson said, alluding to a quotation by Voltaire’s biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall that often is attributed to the 18th-century French satirical writer. “That is freedom of speech.”

Cartoonist and ethics leader offer perspective

Bendib, an Algerian Muslim born in France who works as a political cartoonist in Berkeley, California, offered an analogy on freedom of expression in France.

“I like to compare it to a tasty French cheese called Gruyère,” Bendib said. “It looks like Swiss cheese but tastes even better. Just like that Gruyère cheese, freedom of the press in France is truly delicious, but it’s full of holes.”

One of those holes is the country’s history of colonialism.

“A lot of the problems the French are having integrating the 10 percent of their population who happen to be Muslim stems from the unhealed past of colonialism,” he said. “When you draw cartoons that are perceived as anti-Muslim, when these sorts of insults come after the injury of millions of people who have been killed and ignored and swept under the rug, it becomes more difficult to make the case that it doesn’t really matter.”

On the day of the Charlie Hebdo attack, Bendib drew a cartoon of a fountain pen accompanied by the words, “A mighty new river is born from the ink of your pens, the blood of your veins and the tears of your fans.”

“A couple of those people were heroes of mine, people who made me want to become a cartoonist in the first place,” he said. “I think the cartoonists were dreamers. They were utopians who really believed in that freedom of expression.”

White had advice for journalists who cover these issues: “Take your time, lower the temperature, don’t jump to conclusions, take it easy, reflect, think about what your responsibilities are as a journalist.”

To contrast, he showed a video clip of Fox News legal analyst Jeanine Pirro saying, “We need to kill them. We need to kill them — the radical Muslim terrorists hell-bent on killing us.”

White charged the journalists in the room with eliminating hate speech in stories.

“If we don’t strengthen the capacity of journalism to react in a forceful, intelligent and humane way to the issues that are raised by the Charlie Hebdo killings, then we run into real problems, not just about free expression but also about the sort of democracies we’d like to have,” he said.

MU professor in France at time of attack

When the attack happened, Professor Marty Steffens was leading a group of MU students on a winter break study-abroad program in France. They arrived in Paris that morning. She said the event provided an opportunity to discuss the importance of a free press.

Steffens, an executive board member of the International Press Institute, said that, besides the Paris attack, there are many other acts of violence happening around the world in an effort to suppress freedom of expression. “Nineteen journalists have been killed in the world in 2015. In 2014, we had 100 journalists killed; in 2013, there were 120; in 2012, there were 130. Freedom of the press isn’t just an abstract concept.”

Following the symposium, the speakers, joined by freshman journalism major Jack Herrick who was with Steffens in Paris, participated in a panel discussion moderated by Gareth Harding, Missouri School of Journalism Brussels program director.

Harding asked the crowd if they would have published the controversial Jan.14 Charlie Hebdo cover featuring a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad holding a “Je suis Charlie” sign. A timid dozen raised their hands. More than a dozen indicated they wouldn’t republish the image.

Reasonable arguments can be made on both sides (The Washington Post published the cover; The New York Times didn’t).

“The problem is, in Europe, wasn’t there a little thought behind some of those decisions where someone was saying, ‘If we publish it, someone might throw a bomb through our front window?’ ” White said. “The moment that consideration creeps into the editorial department, you’re no longer dealing with freely made editorial decisions — journalism at its best — you’re dealing with self-censorship. Because that’s editorial decision-making fermented and driven by fear. That’s the real danger,” he said.

“The most important thing is to give journalists the freedom to make those decisions without any form of restraint.”

­— Kelsey Allen