US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

On Tuesday evening, the PEN American Center will honor the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo with its Freedom of Expression Courage Award. The award commends the magazine’s staff for continuing to publish after the Jan. 7 attack at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris that killed 12 people. As the award citation reads, “In paying the ultimate price for the exercise of their freedom, and then soldiering on amid devastating loss, Charlie Hebdo deserves to be recognized for its dauntlessness in the face of one of the most noxious assaults on expression in recent memory.”

PEN, an international society of writers committed to protecting global free speech, has steadfastly defended the freedom to offend as a basic component of free speech. As PEN leaders Andrew Solomon and Suzanne Nossel argued in the New York Times, satirists like those at Charlie Hebdo safeguard “the outer precincts of free speech.” And that border patrol is vital, they wrote. “Without those who stake out the border provinces, we would all be forced to dwell in an ever-shrinking expressive terrain.”

Today, the freedom to offend faces two major threats: the “assassin’s veto” and government censorship. The assassin’s veto is easy to denounce but difficult to counter. How do you convince publications to print something that could cost the staff their lives? Yet it is government censorship that has proved more difficult to combat, in part because it is so readily accepted even in parts of the world that boast free speech traditions.

Increasingly, governments are treating the freedom to offend as something distinct from freedom of speech — and something far less worth protecting. Britain, for instance, has largely criminalized offensive speech. In 2012, a British man served 56 days in prison for a racist tweet. (Imagine what America’s incarceration rates would look like if that were possible here.) That same year another Brit was arrested for posting a picture of a burning Remembrance Day poppy on his Facebook page.

Inflammatory speech has caused legal problems for public figures as well, in both Britain and Canada. Mark Steyn, a Canadian conservative who serves as a substitute host for Rush Limbaugh and a writer for National Review, wrangled with the Canadian Human Rights Commission over his 2006 article, “The Future Belongs to Islam.” Radio host Michael Savage has been barred from entering the United Kingdom for his inflammatory comments about, well, just about everyone: immigrants, Muslims, Catholics.

That both men still regularly appear on the radio in the United States suggests there is something unique about the way America protects speech. The First Amendment construes speech protection as the right of individuals to be unrestrained rather than the right of communities to be unoffended.

We can see this in the controversy roiling PEN. After the organization decided to honor Charlie Hebdo’s staff, six prominent members announced they would no longer be hosting the awards ceremony. They argued that Charlie Hebdo’s satire relied on racism and Islamophobia, and as such should not be celebrated. Francine Prose, one of the boycotters, told Brian Lehrer, “The caricatures make me extremely uncomfortable,” comparing them to the work of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

But wherever you come down on this controversy — whether you side with PEN (as I do) or with Garry Trudeau, who denounced Charlie Hebdo for engaging in “hate speech” — the parameters of the debate are important. The question for these writers is whether Charlie Hebdo should be celebrated, not whether it should be censored. For instance, Prose immediately followed her Goebbels comment with a denunciation of censorship: “I support their right to do it … I would never suggest they shouldn’t publish it.”

That insistence on the right to publish the images that one considers most offensive — and the comparison to Goebbels suggested Prose is mightily offended by the Charlie Hebdo cartoons — is the cornerstone of free speech in the United States.

We can see it again in the response to the attack in Garland, Texas, on Sunday evening, when two gunmen opened fire on a “Draw Mohammed” contest. The event, sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, has little in common with Charlie Hebdo. The initiative and its president, Pamela Geller, are openly anti-Islamic. Geller has decried “the mosque-ing of the workplace,” the “Islamization" of America and other such nonsense. But listen to how American Muslim groups responded to the attack. “We stand with her and everyone who defends freedom of speech,” said Harris Zafar, the national spokesperson for Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.

In discussing Geller and her organization, Zafar noted that her words were both “free speech” and “hate speech.” That idea — that speech can be deeply offensive and wholly protected — is one that deserves to be fiercely defended, both from the legislator’s vote and the assassin’s veto.

This article was originally published at US News & World Report