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Free speech and civility post-Charlie Hebdo

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jan 15, 2015

Two unreasonable positions:

  1. We must never say anything that could possibly be offensive to Muslims.
  2. We should say everything we can think of that will be offensive to Muslims.

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings we have seen both of these unreasonable positions advanced—usually with some rhetorical camouflage. Both are not only unreasonable, but also offensive to the cause of free speech.

Pope Francis today made a point that should be obvious: freedom of speech should be exercised responsibly. There are things that you could say—the law allows it—but you shouldn’t say, as a matter of civility. When your mother told you, “Watch your mouth,” she wasn’t trying to repeal the First Amendment.

Freedom of speech flourishes only in societies that have an underlying culture of civil discourse. Killing people because of their ideas is the greatest possible offense against civility. But insulting people deliberately is also an offense. A lesser offense, certainly, but still an offense. You don’t build up civil society by tearing down its members.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: shrink - Jan. 16, 2015 7:23 PM ET USA

    The more pressing problem that we face is the one that Benedict 16 confronted: to wit, cogent criticism ( of islam, not just its fringe elements, or radical secularists). Some groups will be insulted so long as there is disagreement--cartoonish insults makes the reaction all the easier to justify. But all radicals by nature buck no opposition because there objective is not truth, but submission and the destruction of all opposition.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jan. 15, 2015 3:44 PM ET USA

    The remnant of Charlie Hebdo had a few choice words for support they received from naive Catholics. Glad not to be in that number. Charlie Hebdo and I understand each other.