Fair warning: this blog post is likely to offend. I’m about to advocate for those who make it their business to piss people off.
As I write this, French police are on the brink of apprehending the terrorists who attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris and killed 12 staff members there on January 7.
The presumed motive for the bloodshed? Most agree that the killers were offended by the messages communicated in editorial cartoons published in the magazine, though specifics should become clearer when the killers are brought to justice.
Yes. The magazine’s editorial cartoons—indeed much of its editorial content—had the potential to offend. But that is the very nature of political and social satire. It’s the rhetorical risk takers—the folks who stick their necks out and say publicly what others will only say behind closed doors—who are among the leaders in fostering free and open public discussion about the difficult issues of the day. Charlie Hebdo’s editors knew they were taking risks, but they took them knowingly and intentionally because to silence public conversation is to ensure that only the very few and powerful will have a voice in social and political issues. And silencing of any kind is simply not acceptable. They understood as Mark Twain once wrote, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear.”
One of the most important modern defenses of unpopular speech can be found in the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (1988). Justice Rehnquist, writing for the majority noted:
Despite their sometimes caustic nature, from the early cartoon portraying George Washington as an ass down to the present day, graphic depictions and satirical cartoons have played a prominent role in public and political debate…[T]he fact that society may find speech offensive is not a sufficient reason for suppressing it. Indeed, if it is the speaker’s opinion that gives offense, that consequence is a reason for according it constitutional protection. — Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988)
Provocative messages are not hard to locate in international media coverage; Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were neither the first to outrage, nor the most vitriolic. One needs only to look to Westboro Baptist Church funeral shenanigans to find equally repugnant public messages designed to insight outrage.
Yes. We are obligated to raise important ethical concerns that ask: ‘just because we can, does it mean we should?’ Is offense for the sake of offense instructive or socially valuable? Is speech that lampoons or belittles a specific group of people based on race, sex, sexual orientation, or religious preference hate speech? I don’t plan to answer these questions here. They’re tough ones and worthy of debate. But here’s the thing: debate is precisely what Charlie Hebdo and others advocate by challenging the status quo. We all have a choice as to whether we engage in the verbal sparring that political satire seeks to inspire. That choice happens when messages are made available. Conversely, choice disappears when silence is imposed.
What does a terrorist attack in France have to do with American student journalists?
Challenges to free speech happen all too frequently on college campuses across our nation and it is imperative student journalists know how to respond. For example, recently the University of Iowa’s administration chose to quickly remove from the campus a piece of public art in the form of a hooded Ku Klux Klan member. The figure was covered with newspaper articles that chronicled America’s long-standing racial tensions. The figure was shocking to many who saw it, and though it only stood in the U of I’s free speech zone for a few hours, it inspired outrage and a great deal of conversation. According to an Iowa State Daily article, while the artist was asked to remove the piece under the auspices of not having secured the proper permits to display it, SPLC Executive Director, Frank LoMonte noted, “”It’s hard to start dialogue about something upsetting without showing something upsetting,” Indeed. But if the dialogue was stopped through physical removal of the art, it was incumbent of the student journalists to pick up that mantel and continue it.
Journalists learn to challenge the status quo often for the first time in college. They do it, not unlike Charlie Hebdo, with cartoons, editorials, and asking tough questions when news happens. The creative social critics who employ satire often receive a great deal of push back, sometimes from peers, other times from university administrators or faculty. And when media backs down or is silenced, the conversation stops.
Real social change happens when hard conversations take place. It’s the role of journalists to push the envelope, and yes, sometimes shock or offend. But student media leaders should always weigh the consequences of such action and take these risks knowingly.
Andrea Frantz, Ph.D. is associate professor of digital media at Buena Vista University, Iowa. She was installed as SCJ President at the 2014 Biennial. She’s an advocate of student journalists and the First Amendment. She’ll be blogging periodically about SCJ and other news.