Free Speech Doesn’t Require You to Offend People Just to Prove You Can


Andrew Sullivan points to the following postscript in a Washington Post story about the Charlie Hebdo killings:

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included images offensive to various religious groups that did not meet the Post’s standards, and should not have been published. They have been removed.

Sullivan calls this a “capitulation,” and says, “If any reader knows exactly what images they removed, let us know and we’ll post them here.”

Hmmm. Something is off kilter here. I don’t normally publish things that are gratuitously offensive to Catholics or Muslims or other religious groups. That’s just me, of course, and obviously there’s a ton of judgment involved in how I personally choose to conduct myself as a public writer. But Sullivan goes further: He’s suggesting that even if I wouldn’t normally publish something because it’s offensive, I should actively do so now just to prove that I can. And so should the Post.

I don’t buy that. If there’s news value in reprinting some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons so that their readers have some idea of what motivated the attacks, the Post should print them. But that’s all they should do. If they normally try to avoid gratuitous offense, there’s no reason to change that policy. That’s free speech.

UPDATE: I suppose this was inevitable, but my point is being widely misunderstood. Let me try again. Anyone who wishes to publish offensive cartoons should be free to do so. Likewise, anyone who wants to reprint the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as a demonstration of solidarity is free to do so. I hardly need to belabor the fact that there are excellent arguments in favor of doing this as a way of showing that we won’t allow terrorists to intimidate us.

But that works in the other direction too. If you normally wouldn’t publish cartoons like these because you consider them needlessly offensive, you shouldn’t be intimidated into doing so just because there’s been a terrorist attack. Maintaining your normal policies even in the face of a terrorist attack is not “capitulation.” It’s just the opposite.