Faculty, students opine on Charlie Hebdo, issues of freedom of speech
When Susan Keith began teaching at Rutgers in 2004, she picked up a copy of Rutgers’ satirical newspaper, The Medium, around Thanksgiving. She was shocked by the risqué 8-page issue, each page showing a naked male college student holding a turkey carcass.
Keith, associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies, compared the issue of The Medium as being similar to the “hateful” Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Both put freedom of press into question, she said.
“There are lots of things that are legal [for the media to publish] in the United States and France, but are they advisable and ethical?” Keith asked. “Are they the sort of things we want to support?”
Two gunmen killed a total of 12 people during their attack on the Charlie Hebdo office on Jan. 7. The gunmen said they were avenging the prophet Muhammad after the magazine published controversial depictions of their prophet, shouting “God is great” in Arabic as they fired.
Thousands of people took to the streets of Paris and cities across Europe to defend their right to free speech and honor victims of the attack in what was named by government officials as a “march of unity,” according to CNN.com.
But Keith noted that France restricts speech more than some other countries. In France, Keith said, it is illegal to sell neo-Nazi paraphernalia, for Muslim girls to wear veils to school and to deny the Holocaust. She said this is due to the more secularized nature of French society.
While it may be legal for the media to publish certain controversial content, Keith believes it is still important to act with social responsibility.
“We have all types of limits on speech in the U.S. surrounding copyright too,” she said. “I can’t just take Jay- Z’s latest music and make money from it without paying him royalties.”
Keith said she believes a majority of people would agree there should be some restrictions on freedom of speech, but deciding what those restrictions are becomes difficult.
ABC News reported on different Pakistani political and religious groups burning French flags, inciting violent protests and calling for the banning of the satirical magazine in response to the cartoon.
Tia Kolbaba, associate professor and acting chair in the Department of Religion, said she believes non-violent Muslim protestors are justified in their reaction to the cartoons.
While she viewed the caricature as a form of hate speech, Kolbaba said Charlie Hebdo is an “equal opportunity offender” and the cartoonists are paid to push the limits.
Keith said violence should never be the response to offensive speech, but there should be a non-violent push-back toward ideas that are hateful.
“If you take this back to the grade-school level, you learn early on that if someone says something mean to you, you’re not supposed to hit them,” she said. “People should be able to say things that might be offensive to some, without the threat of violence.”
Following the Paris attacks, Kolbaba fears more people will be reinforced with the impression that Islam is inherently violent.
Kolbaba said Islamic populations in North America have not been substantial or integrated for a long period of time. She believes it will take more exposure to Muslim populations for people to understand that Islam is not a violent religion.
“There was a time in American history when people thought Catholics couldn’t be trusted,” Kolbaba said. “But when you really get to know a significant number of people in a certain group, things can change.”
Pat Karol, a School of Engineering first-year, said admiration for the attack falls under freedom of speech, unless the admiration involves violence.
“A threat or call to violence correlates to physical violence, which is and should be illegal,” he said.
Although this is a global issue, Rutgers students can still participate in the discussion, Keith said. She plans to facilitate discussions surrounding the attack during her lectures.
Rutgers students should themselves on these issues and soak up knowledge “like a sponge,” Kolbaba said. Students at Rutgers are already at an advantage to better understanding the situation because of the religious diversity of the University.
“Take a class on the Middle East and learn about all the different groups or take a class on Islam and learn the complicated story of different Islamic groups,” she said. “The more you know, the better off the world will be.”