The Responsibility of Freedom


Can we just create havoc for a bit of fun without cheapening the freedoms that gave us that right?

I mourn for the French in these days of fear and grief after the attacks on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.  I share their outrage at being attacked and killed for acts of self-expression, and I agree that two of the rights that are foundational to a democracy are freedom of speech and freedom of the press.  I support those principles and am exercising that right even now, as I write this blog.  Attacks on liberty of any kind are always something that deserve a full-throated response if society and the individuals within it are to grow and thrive.

So I understand the response to both the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the mayhem surrounding the decision by Sony to release the comedy film, The Interview.  Freedom equals good; terrorism/censorship equals bad.  I get it, and I agree.


Life in civilized society isn't just pure freedom.  It is a constant balancing act of using law to direct freedom in constructive ways so that one person's freedom doesn't become another person's undoing. Traffic laws, food and safety regulations, the criminal justice code--they all limit some kinds of freedom in the hopes of preserving the most fundamental freedoms of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.  Freedom must be used responsibly for its benefits to be available to everyone.

Freedom of speech is no different.  There are places where we limit our freedom of speech for the sake of the common good.  The most common example is yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater.  A newer example of the same thing is joking about bombs with airport security. You are free to do it, but don't be surprised if your humor is not appreciated by airport personnel, your traveling companions, or anyone else at the airport that day.  In this day and age, it is a stupid and irresponsible thing to do and you will experience unpleasant consequences if you try it.

In my view, Sony's film and Charlie Hebdo's cartoons about Mohammad are both instances of organizations using humor irresponsibly.  The responses of North Korea in the first instance and Islamic extremists in the second are in no way justified, but they were perfectly predictable.  

Satirical media and cartoonists have always poked fun at world leaders, but is it responsible to pick a living dictator trying to develop nuclear weapons who sits high on the list of enemies of the US and joke about his assassination? People have been trashing Jesus in the name of art and humor literally for ages.  But when Islamic extremists have sleeper cells in every country and sympathizers worldwide, and they have made it quite clear that if you so much as create an image of Mohammad they will kill you and anyone associated with you; is it responsible to yell "Free speech!" and poke them in the eye?

Did Sony and Charlie Hebdo have the right to publish those works? Yes. Absolutely, yes. But were those particular expressions worth the consequences?  Can we just create havoc for a bit of fun without cheapening the freedoms that gave us that right?

There are times when it is a noble thing to die for freedom of the press.  I think of the 1837 murder of abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy, who died literally defending his print shop from those who would silence a source of motivation to free America's slaves.  I think of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the countless heroes who died for the most basic of human freedoms.  But to die for the right to trash a world religion?  I wouldn't be signing up for that cause.  And if my son or daughter died because my neighbor decided to do it and my child got caught up in the fray?  I would probably strive to see it as some great cause--anything to avoid facing the possibility that I lost someone dear to me in vain.  But I think I would wonder in my heart of hearts.

The freedoms we enjoy in America, Europe, and elsewhere were won with great sacrifice, blood, and tears.  Every time we exercise those freedoms we should be overcome with gratitude for those who have made them possible and for those who are defending them with their lives at this very moment.  I think part of that gratitude should be shouldering the responsibility to use our freedom in a way that doesn't needlessly increase their risk and burden or put those who had no part in our decision into harm's way.  

Journalists like James Foley are being captured, tortured and beheaded for the responsible use of freedom of the press.  They are in the field documenting and informing the world of human rights abuses and the march of terror across innocent populations.  Your satirical cartoon about Mohammad puts a bigger bullseye on every one of them as well as on you and those around you.  Is that really what they should die for?  Is your right to be disrespectful in print worth the blood of your colleagues and innocents in a grocery store?

Shouldn't we ask these things?


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