The Jan. 7 attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, which resulted in 12 deaths, has renewed an international conversation on the importance of a free press. Politicians were quick to condemn this attack on expression and freedom of the press, perceived to be the bastion of Western democracy. British Prime Minister David Cameron said, “We should never give up the values that we believe in. It is absolutely essential we defend those values today and every day.” President Barack Obama also denounced the attacks, saying, “The fact that this was an attack on journalists, attack on our free press, also underscores the degree to which these terrorists fear freedom.” The Hebdo attack was an extreme example of an assault on freedom of speech, but in recent years both the U.S. and British governments have made concerted efforts to suppress speech they disagree with. Defense of free speech must extend beyond speech the government agrees with when it is politically convenient to do so. All speech must be guarded equally.
Despite Cameron’s rhetoric, the British government has made moves to criminalize nastiness.
In March 2012, six British soldiers were killed during the war in Afghanistan. Two days after their deaths, 19-year-old Azhar Ahmed wrote a Facebook status in which he complained about the British media disproportionately covering the deaths of soldiers over the deaths of innocent Afghans. In part of the message, he said, “All soldiers should die and go to hell.” The teenager was arrested and subsequently charged with a “racially aggravated public order offence.” Absurdly, a police spokesperson said that the arrest occurred because “he didn’t make his point very well.” When a Western government acts in this way, it can no longer claim to uphold free speech as an essential value.
The Obama administration is making similarly empty statements in support of free speech and has prosecuted more journalists under the 1917 Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined. Not only is the U.S. government prosecuting journalists using a World War I-era law originally intended to prosecute spies, but also the mainstream media is advocating racial profiling. In the aftermath of the attacks on Charlie Hedbo, the New York Post called on New York City to “revisit its decision to dismantle the New York City Police Department’s ‘Muslim Mapping’ intelligence program.” Under this measure, the NYPD spied on Muslim places of worship and infiltrated Muslim student groups on the East Coast, including at NYU. This sort of racial profiling is anathema to another fundamental American right: to practice one’s religion free of harassment.
Both Cameron and Obama are right to characterize the Charlie Hebdo attacks as assaults on the freedom of expression. But before taking the moral high ground, both governments must also examine assaults on free speech in their own countries.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Feb. 2 print edition. Email Tommy Collison at [email protected]