Thugs and Free Expression

Millions have said, “I am Charlie.” The ten editors of Charlie Hebdo shot in retaliation for their cartoons of Muhammad now symbolize free expression in the face of violence.

But I’m not sure how deep our belief in free expression really is. Giving offense is a high crime in our culture. Are we really Charlie?

My own tribe of evangelicals is easily offended by movies, TV shows, songs, and books. We’re not Charlie.

Sony executives aren’t Charlie either. They withheld The Interview from release to theaters after Sony was hacked and threatened by North Korea. The editors at HarperCollins certainly aren’t Charlie. They published an atlas of the Middle East for use in schools there. But they left out Israel in deference to “local preferences.” Apparently publishing facts is just as incendiary as opinions.

What about Twitter users? Surely they support free expression. But so many women have hounded off the platform by threats of rape and murder, including Robin Williams’s daughter Zelda after his suicide last summer, that Twitter has added a “report abuse” button. Women’s free expression doesn’t seem much safer.

Gamers? Feminist Anita Sarkeesian was driven from her home last summer after death threats from gamers who resented her critiques of the portrayal of women in video games. Not Charlie.

Surely local civic leaders support free expression. Not Annise Parker, the mayor of Houston who made a ham-fisted attempt to subpoena sermons she suspected of being “political.” Nor Kasim Reed, mayor of Atlanta, who canned the city’s fire chief, Kelvin Cochran, for writing a book about Christianity and giving it to three Christian co-workers.

We might assume that free expression would thrive universities. But if Charlie Hebdo were a CSU student publication, any edition with a Muhammad cartoon would instantly be seized, and the editors hauled before some tribunal for committing a hate crime. This is the same system that banned InterVarsity Christian Fellowship from campus last fall. The crime? Requiring its leaders to believe in Christianity.

The CSU administrators only believe in approved expression. Not Charlie.

Free expression is our acceptance of profound disagreements. It is our compact to fight with words instead of bullets. But our compact is being ripped up by thugs who want to silence all voices but their own. The thugs may be hackers and trolls in their underwear, gunmen in masks, or lobbyists and academic administrators in suits.

If we want free expression to endure, we will all have to open ourselves to being offended. And we’ll have to face down the thugs.

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