Voltaire once famously said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” While this sentiment, one of the hallmarks of America, is often taken for granted in our country, Europeans are struggling to maintain this precious right, especially in the wake of recent terrorist attacks.
Two of these terrorist attacks are directly linked to the issue regarding freedom of speech. A few months ago, two jihadists shot and killed twelve people at the offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The magazine regularly depicted caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, angering militant Islamic groups. Not long after, another shooting occurred in Copenhagen by a gunman linked to radical Islamic groups. His target appeared to be a prominent Swedish artist who depicted Muhammad satirically. The events have prompted debate over the issue of freedom of expression, some calling for potentially offensive images to be restricted. Pope Francis has stated that “there is a limit to freedom of speech” in regards to the attacks. While he was clear that nothing could justify the massacres, he argued that insulting a person’s faith is an unnecessarily provocative act.
Others argue that any type of censoring is a violation of the idea of freedom of expression. British Prime Minister David Cameron took issue with Pope Francis’ assertion, saying that “in a free society, there is a right to cause offense about someone’s religion”. M.K. Perker, a Turkish Muslim cartoonist and personal friend of one the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack, defended the controversial cartoons, stating that freedom of speech is a non-negotiable issue. One witness of the Copenhagen attack has said that if European governments clamp down on freedom of speech due to the attacks, it would be the “the biggest mistake they can make”. The public has also demonstrated support for freedom of expression; Charlie Hebdo now has over 200,000 subscribers, compared with 8,000 before the attack.
In response to the attacks, some European governments have taken measures to restrict free speech. After a Turkish court ruling, Facebook has agreed to block pages showing images of the prophet Muhammad. The court also stated that if the ruling would not be adhered to, Facebook access would be wholly removed in the country. Turkey, in particular, has a history of censorship. In 2014, Turkey made up 60% of global Twitter removal requests. The country also blocked Twitter altogether in March 2014 after alleged corruption surrounding the prime minister was revealed via the site.
With some arguing for caution and some vehemently defending full freedom of expression, Europe continues to debate the issue. The struggle is rooted in the conflict between reducing the possibility of future attacks and the preservation of freedom of expression. Hopefully, Europe will find a way to reconcile these two aspects of the debate, keeping its citizens safe without sacrificing what should be a universal right.