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Standing Up For Free Speech



Last Wednesday, armed gunmen killed 12 people at a French satirical weekly publication Charlie Hebdo. The publication was specifically targeted after it ran cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad.

This following week, Charlie Hebdo has responded bravely and admirably—and in the only way to deal with bullies, not by cowering but by redoubling its publication and printing three million copies with the Prophet Muhammad on the cover, crying and holding a sign saying "je suis Charlie," with a caption that translates to "All is forgiven."

The shootings were a gruesome reminder that free speech is a frontline with terrorism—and, sadly, in spite of holding the headlines for the past week, the killings were hardly an isolated incident. The week following the murders, a German publishing house that reprinted the cartoons was fire bombed. More broadly, the killing of 12 men and women at the offices in Paris came on the heels of another high-profile attack on free speech: In December, Sony Pictures was threatened if they released The Interview. Although those threats have since become fodder for late-night hosts and Tina Fey at the Golden Globe awards, at the time they were deemed real enough that Sony Pictures canceled a Christmas Day release for the movie, at least in part based on fears that movie theaters would be bombed.

Moreover, the attacks last week are part of a growing trend and intensifying attacks on journalists. Since the so-called War on Terror began more than a decade ago, the number of terrorist attacks against journalists has steadily increased each year. In 2002, when Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl was captured and shockingly beheaded, he became a household name. But a decade later, similar attacks seem gruesomely par for the course, with more than 100 journalists kidnapped last year. In August, freelance journalist James Foley was beheaded after being held captive for nearly two years, and in September, a video was released by Al-Qaeda operatives in Syria showing a writer for TIME, Steven Sotloff, beheaded. About that same time, I learned that one of my college classmates, a Boston-based writer, Peter Theo Curtis, had actually been released after 22 months of captivity in Syria. I didn't even know that he had been kidnapped.

The concept of free speech is most often simply that—a concept that the press and media outlets are allowed to share their opinions, whether that is an offending episode of South Park, or a searing opinion piece on Fox News scolding President Obama for saluting marines with a cup of coffee in his hand. But with incidents like the killings in Paris, free speech no longer seems like a concept, but a life-and-death proposition—and one which opposing opinions threaten to silence with violence.

At some point in their career, most journalists feel some sort of pushback against at least one of the articles they publish—whether it is a terse letter chiding them for being stupid, or something more venal. It is part of the dialogue and, yes, an understanding that free speech has consequences. But bullying and physical violence should not be part of that conversation—and the best way to de-tooth bullies is to stand strong against their threats, no matter how frightening that may be.

This week, when Charlie Hebdo responded to the murders in its offices by increasing circulation to three million copies, it made the most courageous and bold statement possible: it stood up for free speech.

Yes, je suis Charlie.

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