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Je suis Charlie?

In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks it has been comforting to see millions of people stand up for the principle of free speech as a basic human right, and as the foundation of a decent liberal society.

Yet I have to say that I am more than a bit skeptical about the sincerity of many of the people holding signs, metaphorically or literally, declaring “Je Suis Charlie.”

Oh, I don’t doubt the sincerity of their emotions. I believe they are genuinely angered by the violence and saddened by the deaths of artists and shoppers, and probably more than a little scared that the violent reactions will spread even further.

But the commitment to the principle of free speech has weakened in Western culture, and the current shows of solidarity with the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo are in stark contrast with current practices in many Western countries, including our own. Many of the people expressing support for the slain cartoonists have before and will soon defend policies meant to curb “hate speech.”

First, look to France, where the violence happened and the need for the defense of free speech is most starkly obvious: just days after the attack, a prominent Muslim comedian made an unfunny joke about the attack, and is now under investigation for the crime of “defending terrorism.” This is hardly a great way to renew dedication to the principle of free speech — shutting down a comic with questionable views and a bad sense of humor.

Here on the North American continent, our neighbor to the north has tribunals that actively prosecute people for expressing views that merely offend others, especially those from a protected class. Mark Steyn wrote a piece for Maclean’s magazine — about as mainstream and moderate a publication as exists — that argued that there is a clash of cultures between the West and Islam, and that Islam was becoming a dominant cultural force. Steyn argued that in this clash of cultures, Islam was winning.

Steyn’s article offended some Muslim law students, and they filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. As a consequence, Steyn and Maclean’s became embroiled in a multiyear legal battle. Defending the process of tribunals, Dean Steacy, an investigator for the Human Rights Commission has explained: “Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value… It’s not my job to give value to an American concept.”

Free speech may be as American as apple pie here at home, except when it isn’t.

The New York Times, for instance, has decided not to publish the cartoons that are at the center of the biggest news story they are covering. CNN won’t show them either. Nor almost any mainstream publication. Because they have deemed them offensive to Muslims.

All the news that is fit to print, except if it offends?

At least with the news corporations, it is self-censorship. The proliferation of speech codes and expanding sensitivities threaten free speech right here in the home of the First Amendment. Many of those speech codes are promulgated by government institutions, and the White House has taken it upon itself to criticize speech that it doesn’t like, including the French cartoons.

Private schools, colleges, and businesses may of course define speech rules as restrictively as they like, but government has been pushing both public and private institutions to police speech and expression in order to protect an ever-expanding group of protected classes. Title IX protections have morphed to such an extent that speech that is found offensive can be seen as a violation of federal law.

I encourage every person who has declared their commitment to free speech and free expression to try to find copies of the famous cartoons. They were “in your face.” They were offensive. They made a lot of people angry. They were uncivil. They made blunt points bluntly. Some of them revealed hard truths, and others simply offended.

And in all likelihood, they would violate any speech code on any campus in America.

We don’t protect free speech only when nobody is made angry by it. We protect speech because people are made angry by speech with which they disagree.

We protect free speech first and foremost because what we think and what we say are fundamental to who we are as human beings. That’s why the protection of free speech is in the First Amendment along with religious freedom and the freedom to assemble peaceably. What you say, what you do or don’t think, and whom you do things with are fundamental to our humanity.

Freedom of speech—even speech we find offensive or hateful—simply has to be a fundamental human right, and we shouldn’t defend it only transiently when terrorists strike at it. And we shouldn’t defend it primarily for its practical benefits to science, philosophy, human knowledge, and literature (all of which do indeed, on the whole, benefit from freedom of speech and the dissemination of differing points of view).

We should value and defend freedom of speech as nothing less than the freedom to be who you are and think what you want to. No bureaucrat should be able to look over your shoulder and chastise you for saying what you believe, just as no terrorist should be allowed to silence you.

David Strom is principal at Think Write Do, a communications and public affairs consulting firm.

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