Charlie Hebdo issue sells out in hours while France cracks down on 'hate speech'
The first issue of Charlie Hebdo, the newspaper whose offices were attacked in Paris last week. sold out its 3 million issue run before dawn. There were scuffles at some kiosks as supplies ran low. The issue featured a cartoon of Mohammed on the cover holding a sign in French that read "I am Charlie."
It was an impressive demonstration of the committment to free speech in France. So why did the French arrest 54 people for "hate speech"?
The core of the irreverent newspaper's staff perished a week ago when gunmen stormed its offices, killing 12 people and igniting three days of bloodshed around Paris. The attacks ended Friday when security forces killed all three gunmen.
Working out of borrowed offices, Charlie Hebdo employees who survived the massacre put out the issue that appeared Wednesday with a print run of 3 million — more than 50 times the paper's usual circulation. Another run was being planned, one columnist said.
French police say as many as six members of a terrorist cell that carried out the Paris attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket may still be at large, including a man seen driving a car registered to the widow of one of the now-dead gunmen. The country has deployed 10,000 troops to protect sensitive sites, including Jewish schools and synagogues, mosques and travel hubs.
The Justice Ministry said the 54 people included four minors and several had already been convicted under special measures for immediate sentencing. Inciting terrorism can bring a 5-year prison term — or up to 7 years for inciting terrorism online.
In its message to prosecutors and judges, the ministry said it was issuing the order to protect freedom of expression from comments that could incite violence or hatred. It said no one should be allowed to use their religion to justify hate speech.
It warned authorities to be particularly attentive to any incidents that could lead to urban unrest or violence against police. That suggested the government fears new riots like the wave that swept through France's neglected housing projects and immigrant communities a decade ago.
The government is also writing broader new laws on phone-tapping and other intelligence designed to fight terrorism, spokesman Stephane Le Foll said Wednesday.
In addition, the government is launching a deeper project to rethink France's education system, urban policies and integration model, in an apparent recognition that last week's attacks exposed deeper problems of inequality in France, especially at its housing projects.
When you grant the government the power to determine which kinds of speech are "acceptable" and which aren't, you don't have free speech. You have regulated speech as some faceless government lackey can charge you with a crime simply for speaking your mind.
When skinheads, or the KKK, or white supremecists spout their idiocy, we can and should condemn it. But arresting them and putting them in jail? Who decides if certain kinds of speech crosses the line? That's the insidiousness of "hate speech" laws and campus "speech codes." The determination is always arbitrary and subject to the opinions and sensibilities of prosecutors. This is why we have a First Amendment in the first place.
There is nothing in the constitution about a right not to be offended. Unless someone is screaming, "Kill the Jews!" in a public square, the idea that anti-Semitism, or racism, or Islamaphobia in and of themselves should be criminalized makes the sacrifice of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists empty and without meaning.