Hebdo and Religion

While the J School was on winter break, our profession suffered a painful assault. There’s been a lot of smart commentary on the attacks in Paris, which did so much more than kill 17 people. For journalists, this atrocity also sparked some serious reflection about the boundary between free speech and protection of religious values.

A number of organizations, including my former employer NPR, have decided not to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Many said, basically, they are concerned about offending their readers. This is a dangerous line of reasoning. The Constitution does protect religion from interference by government. But by tradition, and by law, we do not grant special protections to any belief system. They are all subject to criticism. I think that’s part of what the folks at “Charlie Hebdo” were, and are, trying to say. If you look at their drawings, you’ll see them skewering rabbis, the Pope and, yes, the Prophet Muhammad. Everyone is fair game.

Many societies do award special status to religious institutions. They ban speech that offends certain religious beliefs. French society does not, and jealously guards its secularism. This is one value American journalists need to uphold as well. When people demand that no one offend their beliefs, they are asking for something that US law does not sanction. Religious groups can shun blasphemers and bar them from their communities, but they cannot demand that society at large refrain from satire or critical remarks.

Journalists refrain from printing certain ideas and images all the time, because of lack of space or because they are trying to set a standard. I’m OK with that. But the Hebdo cartoons are now news—they are the news, and they should not be kept behind a veil in an effort to protect sensitive readers. Religious readers can avert their eyes, they can write letters, they can cancel their subscriptions. That’s the same right that every reader has when they encounter offensive language directed at their government or at their political party. If as a journalist you decide not to print the Hebdo cartoons, I hope you’ll do so because you think they are juvenile, or just hard to understand. But please, don’t hold back because you give special status to religion.

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