Last week there was a horrific shooting at the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. Since then, there has been international support for the victims and outrage at the violence, which many people see as a direct attack on free speech. The French president called the dead “heroes”, and the Parisian mayor said that they perform an essential function by talking about awkward subjects. Nearly every international government has come out in support of the satirists and their right to free speech. One of the largest marches in French history, nearly 1 million people gathered in Paris on Sunday to show their support for the victims and their continued belief in the value of free speech.
And yet just this week nearly fifty people have been arrested for speech the government deemed “defense of terrorism.”
Most publicly, the comedian Dieudonné was arrested on Wednesday night for posting a Facebook status that read “Tonight, as far as I’m concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly.” Coulibaly was a gunman who killed five people in other shooting attacks. What’s notable is that Dieudonné is a man of color, while all of the Charlie Hebdo employees who were victims of the attack were white.
We don’t have hard evidence about why Dieudonné was arrested but Charlie Hebdo is being valorized, but protection of free speech requires more than simply nodding in agreement when someone says murder isn’t an appropriate response to speech. The harder questions of free speech are the ones that ask when the government has the right to step in, what kind of speech constitutes harm, or what speech is a threat to the public. These are the concerns that Dieudonné’s arrest should push us to address.