The Charlie Hebdo and Garland attacks have nothing to do with free speech

By on May 5, 2015

In the wake of the Garland attack, as with the Charlie Hebdo attack earlier this year, have come lamentations about the supposed assault on free speech. Some have defended the exhibitors' right to free expression; others have criticized them, saying that "hate speech" is not free speech.

No one seems to have realized that the terrorist attacks have absolutely nothing to do with freedom of speech or freedom of expression.

"Freedom of speech," as protected by the First Amendment, refers to government policing of speech and expression. It protects citizens from government censorship of speech or writing. Garland and Charlie Hebdo involve disputes between publishers and religious believers, both private entities. The government is not party to either dispute.

Of course, the terrorists' actions must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. But to help understand the issue, here's a thought experiment:

Let's say the Garland terrorists, instead of trying to murder attendees of the exhibit, traded their guns for placards and stood outside the exhibit, peacefully protesting and voicing their displeasure with the exhibit's contents. Would anyone condemn this demonstration as an assault on freedom of expression, an act of bullying or intimidation by Muslim fascists? No. In fact, we would celebrate their First Amendment right to assemble and voice their concerns. Many would even sympathize with their position. Nobody would propose forcibly dispersing them or suppressing their right to free speech. In short, the reaction would be the 180-degree opposite of the reaction to the actual attacks.

So why is the actual reaction so different? Because those offended by the exhibit used violence.

If we want to isolate the problem, we should focus on the fact that the terrorists believe that they are justified in using violence to achieve their goals. Artists have a First Amendment right to publish their work, and those offended by it have a First Amendment right to voice their displeasure with it. They may even have a legitimate beef. But when anyone uses violence to try to silence the other side, that crosses the line.

So the crux of the issue is not free speech, freedom of expression, or the First Amendment. It's the use of violence.

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