Fairfax Media

By Tom Switzer and Nicole Hemmer

In response to riots over the latest Charlie Hebdo cover this weekend, French President Francois Hollande said: "There are tensions abroad where people don't understand our attachment to freedom of speech." Yet for all the talk of free speech as a non-negotiable right, many Charlie Hebdo supporters are rank hypocrites. Far from bearing strong attachments to free speech, many support restrictions on free expression in their own countries.

Our concern with the erosion of free speech goes beyond partisanship. One of us is conservative, the other left-liberal. What unites us is a shared belief that people should be able to speak their minds, that freedom of speech — irresponsible, offensive, even blasphemous speech — is a cornerstone of democratic society.

We also believe that with free speech comes great responsibility not to gratuitously offend. But that responsibility belongs to the individual, not the government, and the consequences for breaching it should be social, not governmental. Yet we see an ominous trend toward government restrictions on speech in the very places speech freedoms were born.

Many Australians, for instance, have no qualms over tweeting #jesuischarlie one moment and in the next calling to keep section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act. But those who say they're Charlie, as former NSW Labor solicitor-general Michael Sexton has argued, should support changes to section 18c.

Australia, of course, is hardly alone in curtailing protections on free speech. In the US, from 1949 to 1987, the Fairness Doctrine mandated that radio and television stations cover controversial issues in a balanced manner. At face value, this seemed reasonable, but the devil was in the details. Who decided what was controversial? What "balance" looked like? How to threaten stations to provide equal time and "balanced" news coverage? Like 18c, the Fairness Doctrine was rarely used to revoke stations' broadcasting licenses, but it still had a chilling effect on controversial speech.

That chilling effect now comes not from US government regulators but from university administrators. To be sure, there is a significant difference between the two, but it is a troubling trend that universities have increasingly become spaces that dole out tougher penalties for offensive speech than most American institutions. Professors have been fired for offensive tweets. Students have been constrained by university speech codes.

Still, the US stands apart in its understanding of speech, protecting individuals from the state rather than communities from individuals. Take the case of Michael Savage. A right-wing shock jock, Savage has voiced a number of odious opinions about Muslims and other groups. Yet although he has free rein to voice his views in the US, he has been banned since 2009 from even entering Britain, which has accused him of "fostering hatred which might lead to inter-community violence."

Indeed, Britain has been at the forefront of efforts to criminalise speech. In 2012 a 19-year-old was arrested for posting a picture of a burning Remembrance Day poppy on his Facebook page. That same year a 21-year-old received a 56-day prison sentence for a racist tweet.

It is a trend developing across Europe. Deniers of the Holocaust are fined and imprisoned with the endorsement of the press. In France itself, laws criminalise speech that insults, defames or incites hatred, discrimination or violence on the basis of race or religion. A few years ago, the former actress Brigitte Bardot was convicted for a writing a letter to the president on how Muslims and gays were destroying France. So much for Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

While we support freedom from censorship, we do not believe media have an obligation to publish offensive images. In the past fortnight, critics have castigated several serious media outlets for failing to reproduce the vile cartoons in the face of a terrorist attack.

This is unfair. Every day, magazine, newspaper and online editors decline to publish ethnic slurs and disgusting images that might offend a race or religion. This is not censorship: it is an editorial judgment. The motto of the New York Times, which declined to publish either the provocative Danish cartoons a decade ago or the Charlie Hebdo ones, is: "All the News That's Fit to Print." In other words, free speech offers latitude but not necessarily license.

It is true that Islamic nations publish and broadcast images that are more offensively anti-Semitic than those Charlie Hebdo cartoons are anti-Muslim. But western media outlets rarely publish such obscene images. For one thing, they are offensive. For another, publication would cause a backlash among readers and potentially advertisers.

Scrutiny, not censorship, is the better way to combat offensive speech. Censorship makes heroes out of bigots: would we even know of the Holocaust denier David Irving if governments had not tried to ban him?

Moreover, scrutiny holds bigots up to the light and opens them up to reason and, if necessary, ridicule. A government that views itself as the thin line between a civil society and a virulently racist one is a government that lacks faith in its people.

This article was originally published in Fairfax Media