The Price of Free Speech

Does free speech endanger the safety of society?

Martin Bureau/AFP

Free speech is under attack.

Only weeks after Sony Pictures underwent a cyberattack for portraying the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, French newspaper Charlie Hebdo is faced with an even worse situation.

After years of satirizing Islam through the portrayal of Prophet Mohammad, the Paris newspaper office was attacked by 3 masked gunmen. Presumed to be Muslim extremists, they escaped after killing 12 people, including 4 acclaimed cartoonists from the newspaper. .

The attack on Charlie Hebdo, which has long been labeled as controversial and offensive, raises a critical question about culture and politics.

Is the ideal of free speech truly good for society?

Some would argue no. The reality is that words (and in the Charlie Hebdo case, pictures) can be extremely dangerous. Whether it be through a simple tweet by a teenager, or a publication by a large newspaper, the freedom of speech can be used in careless, offensive manners. As a result, it can provoke life-threatening responses from those who are offended. Perhaps those 12 lives would’ve never been lost had Charlie Hebdo been more thoughtful and rational. Terrorist attacks aside, free speech can cause tension, anger and fear within individuals and large groups alike. And the truth is, many types of offensive speech are unnecessary and uncalled for. Stricter regulations on libel, slander, obscenity and other offenses could help spread peace and save lives.

Yet at the same time, many would argue free speech is what is best for society. The freedom to express oneself is trademark of democracy and liberty. The benefits of free speech, which are enjoyed by millions of people every day far outweigh any occasional threats it may pose. Restricting free speech in the face of terrorism would be completely counter effective. Taking away the rights of citizens and diminishing their quality of life is the objective of terrorism, anyway. Limiting free speech would be fulfilling the purpose of terrorism without terrorists picking up a gun or boarding a plane. Furthermore, getting rid of free speech is unlikely to have any positive effect. People with offensive things to say would still find a way to say offensive things. Terrorists would still find a reason to be terrorists. The only ones being harmed would be the civilians; those who have done nothing wrong. The freedom of expression is something to be proud of, and giving it up to external threats would be the epitome of weakness.

So what should be done about free speech?

The freedom of speech is a power. And as Spider-Man would say, with great power comes great responsibility.

So at the end of the day, the safety of free speech is dependent on the responsibility and judgement of those who use it.

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