An attack on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo took 17 lives by the time all the smoke cleared, not the bloodiest uprising in French history but certainly the deadliest act of terrorism in that country in 50 years.

They don’t have a First Amendment in France, but they do have freedom of speech — a tradition that goes back roughly to the time of the guillotine. And they have a free press, too, under a law amended in the 1970s that exempted speech inciting hatred, racism, sexual discrimination, Holocaust denial and a few other equally loathsome categories from the shield.

It’s not exactly the same as in this country, where our speech seems to have more protections, though none of us are allowed to shout, “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

Charlie Hebdo is one of the publications that tests France’s free-speech laws, particularly in attacks against adherents of Islam, who constitute as much as 10 percent of that country’s population. The numbers are inexact because the French government is prohibited from asking any of its citizens about their religion — how’s that for separation of church and state?

It’s inherently risky to weigh in on this issue specifically because of these differences in law and culture, history and demographics. Context is everything, but all we know is what we’ve seen.

CH is like Mad magazine, but with a political bent and written by bigots. So acerbic is its content that its slogan, Bête et méchant, which translates into “Dumb and nasty,” became an everyday expression in French culture. Anti-semitism, the demonization of Muslims, crude depictions of naked people and butthole jokes are all part of the program.

We’d never defend terrorist action or the use of a gun as a means of editorial feedback. But unlike perpetrators of a new meme making the rounds on social media, we are not Charlie Hebdo, whose sole mission, it seems, was to provoke.

Understand, provocation should be incorporated into the mission of every good newspaper. But many of the cartoons published regularly in Charlie Hebdo seem designed to induce provocation simply for its own sake.

With a newspaper, that’s one way to go — assuming that the people you’re provoking will respond within the boundaries of the law.

This is as good a time as any to remember that though our speech may be protected, the consequences of that speech are not.

As we see it, there’s a responsibility that comes with the megaphone that is a weekly newspaper, one that goes beyond following the letter of the law. Gratuitous disrespect, reckless provocation and xenophobia are not the highest use of the megaphone.

Newspapers are supposed to provoke, but they’re also supposed to make people smarter. Charlie Hebdo seems to have sacrificed one for the other.


  1. So now we’re trying to use French law to question the *legality* of Charlie Hebdo’s existence?

    It appears that y’all didn’t actually read the articles pointing out that CH satirized bigotry by illustrating those perceptions to its absurd end?

    “…they campaigned relentlessly for all illegal immigrants to be given permanent right of stay. ”

    “Judaism was frequently lampooned (a simple Google search will verify that). The Charlie Hebdo team were also very much pro-Gaza, and often fiercely critical of Israel’s actions in the Israel-Palestine conflict.”

    “the cartoon depicting France’s black Justice minister Christiane Taubira as a monkey was actually lampooning the blatant racism of a far right wing paper’s front cover and thus exposing the thinly veiled racism of that publication (note that Taubira sued the paper Charlie Hebdo were parodying, and not Charlie Hebdo)”

    Eric and Jordan, I don’t know how the two of you signed off on this editorial.

      • Interested in our editorial process? Or just upset because you don’t agree with us?
        Either way: I usually write the editorial after some discussion with the other editors. It then makes its way around, with all of us adding comments, rebuttals, counterarguments, etc. Then I make the edits and rewrites before we go to print.
        This one made a couple of loops through the process.
        Not sure what you think you know about me or them, but I’ll say this: I am a First Amendment absolutist, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to go work for Screw magazine — though in all honesty I probably would have.
        France doesn’t have a First Amendment, but it has a modified form of free speech that excludes hate speech and other types. Different culture, different history, different demographics, different social issues. That’s what makes comparison risky.
        But forgetting that for a minute, I would never run most of the cartoons from Hebdo I saw, and I likely looked at all the same links you did. I don’t care why he’s drawing a black person like a monkey, I just think it’s asinine and shameful… and yes: offensive. And I am not a man who gets offended easily. I would never run anything like that, not because I can’t but because it’s irresponsible, wrongheaded and whatever the motivation for printing it, it feeds into a hateful stereotype that deserves no oxygen from mass media.
        That is why we are not Charlie Hebdo.
        If I didn’t get that point across, the fault lies with me alone.

    • I’ve read the articles about Charlie Hebdo’s satire, and about the causes they advocated for, but really, from here it seems very much like white guy who makes racist jokes “ironically” to subvert the racist system. Most of the time the joke winds up being on the people he’s advocating for, regardless of his intentions. I have only read a couple pieces written on Charlie Hebdo from Muslims in and out of France, but I haven’t seen any one of them affirm that it was an anti-racist publication. Often, they said the opposite. See “I am not Charlie. I am Ahmed, the dead cop.” If the people this publication was supposedly in solidarity with think it’s racist, it probably is- regardless of the intentions of the cartoonists.

      • I’ve tried to read everything everyone has sent me about this, and in the end it’s hard not to draw the conclusion Casey makes above: “If the people this publication was supposedly in solidarity with think it’s racist, it probably is- regardless of the intentions of the cartoonists.”

        Daniel, you clearly feel very strongly about this. I suggest you write a letter to the editor for us to print. We invited (or are about to invite) your friend Joshua to write a guest piece for us about it, too.

  2. I am not Charlie Hebdo either. Part of the whole Charlie Hebdo hashtag phenomenon is that mainstream publications refuse to deal with the fact that CH is a smutty publication. I knew there was controversy surrounding the drawing of Islam’s prophet, I had no idea how crude and amateurish the work of CB was. I am an atheist, but I don’t insult the religion of others. I am sorry that CB was attacked, and that people were killed. There is no defense for taking someone’s like, but for god’s sake we don’t have to uncritically embrace Charlie Hebdo just because they were the victims of terrorism. What if Hustler’s Larry Flint had been killed instead of wheelchair bound after his criticism of Jerry Falwell? Would folks say, “I am Hustler?” Go back and look at the cartoon where Hustler made fun of Falwell, it’s actually a lot classier than Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. I salute TCB for taking a more critical look at everyone’s new favorite French satirical magazine.

  3. The “Je suis Charlie” movement chiefly campaigns that we should live in a society where people are not threatened or killed for communicating their views, regardless of whether these views are appalling. People should have the right to voice their opinions and even provoke. When what we deem as bad ideas are expressed, we have the freedom and responsibility to criticize and hold these ideologies accountable, not eliminate or silence their authors.

    I do not understand why people are continuously failing to look at the real issue at hand regarding CH. Discussing the content of CH’s publications is an entirely different thing. Siding with them because there were slaughtered due to practicing free press is on a completely different level. Saying that “we don’t have to uncritically embrace Charlie Hebdo just because they were the victims of terrorism” is disingenuous. You don’t need to celebrate or embrace the publication’s virtues to stand in solidarity with the values of free speech or recognize that these rights were violated by extremists who oppose freedoms we hold dear. This clear distinction is essential before we start reaching victim blaming conclusions.

    In France, CH hasn’t been a celebrated newspaper, but tell the French people to eradicate the magazine, and you have committed hate against free press. Obviously, comparing the US and France’s social issues can be tricky. Also, Americans don’t seem to understand French satire in context very well. But if they can appreciate CH’s existence in a free world, I don’t see why it’s difficult for us to be outraged about these terrorist attacks.

  4. I was interested in the editorial process. It seemed unbelievable to me that the article was making claims that I thought had been refuted by articles that 2/3 of the editors had looked at. Apparently I was wrong and all three editors were aware of the claim that CH satirizes bigotry and xenophobia. And yes, I’m frustrated by the idea that TCB is acting cavalier on these claims that I consider refuted. I may consider submitting an article to elaborate, Eric, thanks for the invitation.

  5. Call it obscene, crude, whatever. The publication was not racist. Here is some more detail on the cover in question:

    “The best example here is the very widely shared cartoon by the slain editor Stéphane Charbonnier, known as Charb, of a black woman’s head on a monkey’s body above the phrase Rassemblement Bleu Raciste (Racist Blue Rally). The French are aware that the woman in the cartoon is the justice minister, Christiane Taubira, and that the red, white and blue flame in the cartoon is the logo of the Front National, which had recently gotten into hot water for publishing a photograph of a baby monkey and the words “At 18 months” next to a picture of Taubira and the word “Now.” The Front National’s slogan is Rassemblement Bleu Marine (Navy Blue Rally), a play on the name of their leader, Marine Le Pen. It is obvious to any French person familiar with the political context that the cartoon is mocking the racism of the Front National and indeed Taubira herself, in the wake of the massacre, has mounted repeated defences of Charlie Hebdo.”

    The staff has been accused of being all white. The staff is not in fact all white. The author breaks down the other covers and goes on to say:

    “It is an illogical, self-destructive, identity politics mess where all accusations of racism are instantly believed and anyone who raises questions is racist themselves. Accusations of racism (indeed any accusations) must be substantiated by the accuser, not automatically presumed to be true. Automatic presumption of racism without substantiation is not anti-racism; it is cowardice and vanity, as it suggests the individual is more interested in ensuring he or she does not appear racist rather than in actually countering racism.”

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