Free speech for everyone, from Charlie Hebdo to the jihadists


Our commitment to free speech is most tested when we defend the rights of those we strongly disagree with. In that respect it is good to see so many people defending Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish following the massacre at their office. A highlight of the global solidarity effort has been the million-strong march in Paris today, attended by many world leaders.  It’s good to see a double theme to most actions, with the defence of free speech going hand in hand with a promotion of cultural and religious tolerance.

Many progressive commentators are critical of Charlie Hebdo, saying its cartoons are often racist, sexist and homophobic, yet these commentators have still, rightly, defended the magazine’s right to publish them.

A good way to remember those who died would be more consistent in our defence of free speech – and expose and remove the restrictions on freedom of expression that have crept into Western societies under the guise of the “war on terror”.

In Britain police spend a lot of time checking people’s on-line comments and last month Runa Khan was sentenced to five years in prison for “promoting terrorism on Facebook.” Judge Peter Birts sentenced Runa Khan for “disseminating terrorist material with the clear intention of radicalising others.”

If we really believe in free speech we have to defend the right of extremists on both sides of the argument, be it the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists fostering Islamophobia or Islamic extremists propagandising for jihad. After all, it is better to settle disputes by debating with words (or cartoons) than with guns. Denying the free speech rights of Islamic extremists only makes it more likely that some of them, living in the West, might actually resort to arms.

Our societies become much stronger if the full spectrum of political views is given a hearing, and it is useful to hear what grievances have driven people to extreme views. Understanding their grievances, and helping rectify them to the extent they are valid, is the path to greater social harmony. The prejudice against Muslims living in France and their economic marginalisation has made extremist solutions more attractive to some Muslim youth – as has French support for America intervening militarily in the affairs of Muslim nations.

In last Friday’s New Zealand Herald, Patrick Cockburn points out how the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts “have provided a seedbed for Islamic extremism” and stresses the importance of a ceasefire between Syrian government and non-jihadi rebels. It means Western nations “accepting that they are not going to overthrow Bashar-al-Assad and Assad accepting that he is no going to win back all of Syria.”

It’s not only Britain that is restricting free speech in the on-line world. Glenn Greenwald recently detailed several US cases where people have been imprisoned when their on-line posts have been interpreted as supporting terrorism.

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The right to publish what some might consider offensive material, whether on-line or in the print media, is something we should cherish. As the Sunday Star-Times pointed out yesterday, we have to keep fighting for a free media and the rights of us all to freedom of expression. The Star-Times editorial listed some of the ways our journalistic freedoms are under challenge here. Police have been in action against journalists, raiding newsrooms over the Key/Banks cup-of-tea conservation, and taking away files from Nicky Hager’s home following the hacking of Cameron Slater’s emails. Journalist Jon Stephenson’s phone calls were monitored by the Defence Force because of critical reporting on Afghanistan, and Fairfax reporter Andrea Vance’s email, phone and access card records were handed over to an official leak inquiry.

We still have a lot to do at home to protect our freedom of speech.


  1. “The right to publish what some might consider offensive material, whether on-line or in the print media, is something we should cherish.”
    – See more at:

    So, extreme pornography depicting violence towards ‘consenting’ women/young people. OK?

    So, pornography depicting sex acts with very young ‘looking’ people?

    So, sites that promote as ‘natural’ sexual relationships between young boyss and much older men?

    So, sites that say ‘crush Islam’. OK?

    So, sites that say ‘the jews are responsible for all the worlds problems, kill them all, Hiltler was right’. OK?

    You see?

    Freedom of speech, if a “right”, should be tempered with responsibility.

    Or, the extremist voices will be the only one’s heard.

    I am presuming that as a politician, you would dismantle our Human Rights legislation?

    • I don’t extend free speech to child pornography. I was talking about free speech in the realm of political and social ideologies, political and social analysis and political and social strategies.

      Yes, I agree with you (and also argue) that free speech should be tempered with responsibility – but that does not mean we should ban expressions of free speech if they are not, in our judgement, tempered with enough responsibility.

      The result of allowing extremists free speech is not that they will “be the only one’s heard”. If they are not addressing real problems and offering real solutions then people will listen to them less.

    • Dear Rosemary,

      Please refrain from mutilating your surname. It’s a proud one, with a long heritage in several countries. Thank you.

      Each and every one of the whatabouteries you have listed have been operating for centuries, in cultures all around the world.

      Once they would have been known about by a few.

      Now they are known about by many and we are faced with choices. Lots and lots of grey choices.

      One that didn’t get to your List of Shame! is FGM. And now people know about it. The girls doomed to go on a ‘cutting holiday’ know about it. It is spoken of by the diaspora and the people in the countries of origin. There are strong and effective moves to get this practice into the dustbin of history.

      Information and depictions and conversations leading to people putting their hands up and saying, ‘No more!’

      You can’t shut this stuff down. You know you can’t. So take your outrage and turn it to some use.

      And (though I know you never did, but just in case) don’t witter about ‘the innocence of children’ and ‘protecting the vulnerable’. It’s of no use to the kids currently living in hell, or the trafficked people, now is it. Only the steps to reveal and give effective paths to liberation and recovery will do that.

      And – to do that you’ll need to speak freely of the wrongs and evils. You’ll have to show and give evidences – stupidly posted by the perpetrators.

      Free speech because coy simply won’t cut through the miasma.

    • Rosemary, what you are talking about has nothing to with free speech. What you are talking about is illicit recordings of criminal acts. That is like comparing chalk with cheese.

    • Rosemary, my point is Freedom of Speech is stating an opinion, even when it is unpopular. Making a racist or sexist remark is extremely unpopular speech, but a person has the right to say it as much as I have the right to voice my disgust at that opinion. The criminal act of killing someone because of their race or gender is murder, not, Freedom of Speech, just as a visual recording of an act of sexual abuse is not Free Speech.
      This is why when a guy at the local pub makes an uncouth statement to a lady and her boyfriend punches the creep in the nose it is the puncher that is hauled away by the police not the punchee.

  2. Keith may be right in a radical sense, but his point of view actually reveals the huge dilemma that open, democratic societies face. It is not without reason, that France and many other democracies are strictly secular, or separate the state and government from religious influences.

    The dilemma comes with the “multiculturalism” that has been adopted in many societies, also here in New Zealand, where you have migrants with various cultures and religions immigrate, for various reasons, often just for a “better life”, and nobody can blame them for this.

    Religious activity in various forms may have its place for some, and whatever its form, it must be kept strictly out of the executive and other parts of government doing their jobs.

    The media is often celebrated as the “fourth estate”, I fear in too often a case without justifying this, given the apparent bias that shows here and there. Nevertheless, besides of blogs and social media, there is little alternative for information being accessible, unless one wants to try and become and “uber-informed” superhuman, studying all matters of relevance her- or himself.

    With religious people, same with people holding strong secular and diverse views, there come challenges, and they are not easy to handle and address.

    I can easily accept that the murderous terrorists that caused the mayhem in Paris over the last week, are anything but true Muslims and anything but truly “religious” people. They exploited religions for their own ends, to have a “reason” to express their violent anger towards the undesired part of French establishment, a radical or extreme expression of “media” and perhaps “opinion”.

    But we also get calls from Muslims there and here, same as probably other groups, religious, cultural of various forms, and some will be firmly local, who want to change society, or at least have influence on how things are said, reported and done.

    We for instance now have religiously motivated groups able to run “partnership schools” and influence the young, formative minds from an early age. We have some cultural groups in Auckland wanting elder care homes for their ethnic or cultural groups, and more of this will come with a more diverse society.

    Where does this leave the freedom of expression, when we already have the police ensure that Mainland Chinese dignitaries are “shielded” from Tibetan or Falun Gong protestors?

    There are already many compromises made, and more demanded.

    What “culture” will bind us together in all diversity, apart from common shopping in the temples of consumerism on weekends, apart from performing work for employers hiring us all no matter where we are from? What culture but work, pay tax and consume, where so much else is so diverse, many escape into individualism, that is hardly shaping a cohesive, “united” society, as we see it.

    The show of the “heads of state” at the march in Paris, as I watched it on Al Jazeera was a farce to me, a show for media, which again complied, to serve messages of “unity”, where there is only so much superficial unity. The Israeli PM went there calling for French Jews to migrate to Israel (where settlements will house many of them on traditional land occupied by Palestinians).

    Mr Cameron from London threatened the EU with the exit of the UK, refusing to pay dues to the EU household. He faces UKIP in the coming election, and neither Conservatives nor Labour are likely to get a majority. Hollande in France is as unpopular as ever, and Merckel in Germany can only govern with the usually opposition social democrats.

    Europe faces the exit of Greece, and growing difficulties. The National Front in France got 25 percent of the vote.

    That is just Europe, the challenges have just started, and having dignitaries show up (with worry in their faces) on a march in Paris did not convince me they have the solutions, where some of them even were from authoritarian, oppressive regimes, at logger heads with each other.

    The fear I saw, all of them guarded by thousands of police and soldiers, separate from “the masses”, shows how insecure the world is and how volatile it is. Not much hope I saw, only desperate hope of many who care for the Europe that still exists, but may tomorrow be yesterday.

    • Yes is is frustrating for many of us desperate for absolutist certainty that some things must be left in the hands of someone trying to represent the views of “the reasonable person” or to decide things within a “reasonable doubt”, or try to establish a “reasoned approach” to all the many evils of the day, without unduly interfering with the desires and the equally reasoned approach of the multi-faceted opposing desires also present.

      This kind of existential challenge is why most proposed answers to the big questions of the day are compromises, while the only true solutions can be obtained by paradigm shifts.

  3. In the New Zealand context….

    we have…..

    and the resultant outcry….

    and the voice of reason from the oppressed group….

    “That’s why I say that while hate speech is still legal in New Zealand, we have a duty to fight it. We have a duty to counter bigotry, prejudice and discrimination wherever it rears its head. And in a society which values free speech, I would expect Laws to not listen (as I know he won’t) but to at least know that his words and those of bigoted others will be contested vigorously. “

    • At least encouraging to stop “certain” people having babies is now even government and WINZ authorised, and sanctioned, see the presentation under the follwoing link:

      “Shifting your Primary Focus to Health and Capacity”

      “LARC and Beneficiaries

      A non-recoverable Special Needs grant is
      available to female beneficiaries to facilitate
      access to subsidised Long Acting Reversible

      “IUCDs (Mirena only when
      subsidised) and Jadelle implants”

      “It covers the cost of the assessment, fitting and
      if required removal up to a total of $500 a year”

      …as published by doctors David Bratt (WINZ Principal Health Advisor) and UK Professor Mansel Aylward on slide 45 of their 48 page PDF presentation, presented to a GP conference in Rotorua in June 2013!

      • Now, if they could just do the same for dental costs and opticians!

        It’s not always ‘bad’.

        Go into your local chemist’s and have a look at the uncollected prescriptions – can’t afford.

        Want to have contraception – can’t afford.

        Don’t know about other folk but I do know commercial ‘feminine hygiene products’ vanished from my shopping list in favour of ‘going on the rag.’ Because that’s a monthly expense which – can’t afford.

        I agree with you about Bratt and Co. I have reason. But, as a fem, if the stingy critters will pay without all the usual shaming and hoop-jumping – let ’em! It’ll be safer to enjoy myself worry-free… 😉

  4. Trying to incite people to kill others is not free speech. It is criminal speech.

    Drawing a fictional cartoon of a fictional character from a fictional book is not criminal.

    You have no logical basis for your argument.

  5. False equivalence, at least in relation to jihadists explicitly encouraging or demanding violence against non-muslims.

  6. Interesting article, and you are exactly right that most of the world leaders gathered in Paris to show solidarity for the victims of Charlie Hebdo are hypocrites. The UK is arresting and jailing people on the basis of non-violent tweets, and other countries from Qatar to Saudi Arabia to Georgia are arresting and beating journalists and bloggers (it is extremely rich for the Saudi’s to be there while they have sentenced a blogger to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for ‘blasphemy’).
    We need to take this horrific endpoint and use to to reinvigorate our free speech in the West and encourage the extension of it in other countries.

    However, in at least some of the examples you allude to, the person arrested for terrorism or supporting terror is calling for specific or general acts of violence against either an individual group or a country. This is not free speech.

  7. Fascinating article: The Road From Paris to Damascus–and Back Again

    The so-called West doesn’t like freedom of expression. When I began working at Al Jazeera, then investigating Al Qaeda, the Qatari company was violently targeted. When I was at the BBC, we had a source who was trying to tell the world that Tony Blair’s government was deceiving the public about evidence for an invasion of Iraq. The scientist David Kelly was allegedly driven to suicide. Afterwards, millions were made refugees, wounded or killed, in and around Iraq. Journalists who tried to be free to express themselves were driven out. The head of the BBC was removed.

    When The Guardian tried to reveal the Edward Snowden revelations about everyone in Britain being bugged by the secret services, David Cameron sent in the heavies – not to kill editor Alan Rusbridger – but to smash up Guardian computers. Snowden had to flee to Moscow with the aid of Wikileaks. The mass surveillance state had already been used against Wikileaks for having the temerity to believe it was free to expose U.S. military killing of civilians. Thousands more than who died in Paris have been extra-judicially assassinated by President Obama’s drones. There was no place in the Western mainstream media for blame on NATO nations for aiding Israel as it killed and maimed thousands of Palestinian civilians in Gaza over the summer.

  8. What exactly is free speech? That is the problem. Can you compare the ideas of free speech in United States to that in New Zealand, or North Korea or Sudan, or Russia? Very difficult to be sure. The harder you look into free speech, the more problematic it becomes. It is not simply the freedom to say what you like without any threat of retribution. It also involves truth, religion, morality and custom. These mean very different things to different people so how do you reconcile it all? I wish I knew. Anyone who can come up with a good solution would deserve a Nobel Peace Prize.

    • Interestingly on this point, one theorist (Stanley Fish) argues that there is no such thing as “free speech”. Rather, it is part of our broader human liberty (of doing what we want) to say what we want. When freedom of expression is used to cut against other rights (property rights, personal security etc) then it is usually constrained. In other words, free speech operates as the left overs that you can say that don’t go so far as to mess with anything else we actually care about. It does not operate as a right in and of itself. This might explain why the limits of free speech vary so wildly from place to place, as the values actually cherished/sanctioned in each place varies.

  9. Mike the Lefty is right,

    We don’t live in a “one size fits all” world for goodness sakes.

    This is the right always attempting to simplify all things again by centralising and homogenising every situation so it can all be controlled simply from their command centre, but as Mike says it all falls apart because;

    ” These mean very different things to different people so how do you reconcile it all?”

    Obvoiusly the right will use any mechanism to control the entire world if they could.

    “Live and let live” always I say and keep big Government out of peoples lives.

  10. Actually what we really need is a definition of free speech. Because according to my upbringing, freedom of speech does not include mocking & denigration and/or hate speech. It seems to me that what many Charlie Hebdo journalists were involved in was not ‘free speech’ at all and was closer to what was presented to the German public before WWII.

    I’m appalled at the hypocrisy in this entire affair. Not just from the media, but from the rest of the world, and especially France, who in 1985 allowed their government sanctioned agents to commit an act of terrorism in NZ. For a while we also lived in fear, wondering if it would happen again. It was a terrorist act the French have never made a sincere apology for (only some brief politically motivated piece-meal offering). How dare they play the ‘innocent’.

  11. Great article. I totally agree that

    Denying the free speech rights of Islamic extremists only makes it more likely that some of them, living in the West, might actually resort to arms.

      • Larry, I must ask, have you actually witnessed a video where a “terrorist” has told others to kill? If yes, did you do it? No? I could rest my case there. You see by your logic, everytime a western world soldier enters a country they are at war with and kills someone, by virtue of his/her military training, they are incited to kill people, which is a crime.

  12. I think we are a very young Civilisation with no concept what generations have been through to save and preserve our freedoms and rights to free speech.

    Just remember how so many of our fallen heros fell on foreign fields for our rights to free speech.

    Some seem to believe that we need definitions for what is free speech.

    This shows just how immature we are as a young civilisation.

    We didn’t need one back hundreds of years ago so why now?

    No there is something else wrong here and we should find out what we all can do to collectively change to get the terror campaign stopped, as no one is actually asking why this has all come about in the last half century beginning with blowing up high jacked planes.

    This is all happening as the world powers are driving another “cold war” with Russia, so maybe we need to revisit our priorities of who is actually starting all these “fires” of discontent around the globe.

    My suspicion is that it is the Industrial complex is needing another war as the Global economy is in deep shit and needing another war to stop the next global economic crash.

    Try The Bilderberg Group they do this shit.

  13. Muslims do have the right to spread distasteful information. Where they might get in to problems is if they are inciting violence but that is no different to the rest of us.

  14. Keith, sound article but you’re missing a vital point: Jihad (and other extreme sects) promote/support/demand violence and death. In this sense their ‘free’ speech isn’t free; it’s a literal call to arms and this is why it can’t be allowed (much like Rosemary’s misguided arguments).

    • “(much like Rosemary’s misguided arguments).”

      Please, I beg you, right to free speech notwithstanding….leave me OUT of this.

      I got the message already.

      No room for my opinion here.

      • Of course there is room for your opinion, Rosemary, that is exactly the point of why Free Speech is so important! With more information from people who don’t agree with you, you may change your point of view. Ever had that happen? I have. Or you may find the opposing thoughts expressed from others may cement your original point of view even stronger. If the right to free speech is ever suppressed or removed we could lose essential information that would remove our own ability to reach an informed opinion. That is why many tend to look for alternative media sources for their news information as the main stream tend to have a biased agenda, offering cherry-picked information with spin.

    • “Jihad” is NOT a “sect” or religion, my friend. Your comment is a bit like some on “talk back”, lacking sufficient information on what you wish to make a point about.

      Jihad is a term or concept in Islam, referring to forms of “duty”, which can have various expressions. The term is also used in relation to the defending of the faith of Islam, but with that, it is being abused by extremists and terrorists, who have their own “interpretation” of it, same as of other terms used by Muslims.

      Perhaps this will enlighten you:

      Western media, and certainly also the NZ MSM, are doing a terrible job with all this, as they often do not themselves understand the words and terms they use so frequently. Hence the wider public gets false information, misrepresented details and gets further manipulated and biased into bizarre, equally extreme and perverted views.

      Perhaps with “media studies” should be a prerequisite to also study history and some other subjects under the heading “humanities”? We have a lot of “graduates” that seem to know f*** all about what they are meant to report on.

      Oh, I forgot, their main role is to “sell” the advertising, that they “intersperse” with bits of “infotainment”.

    • And the mercenaries invading their countries don’t promote/support/demand violence and death? Are you fu**ing serious Andy? How the hell else can you conquer a country and take their resources. Wake up Andy!

  15. Rosemary McDonald don’t stop blogging please,

    I for one have a “Live and let Live” tolerance I was exposed to while living my time for 6yrs in two parts of the USA during the 1990’s.

    This is so precious to feel being left to your own devices while living among Americans, as they did respect others rights to “Live and let Live”.

    This was before the coming of Bush the second invasion of Iraq.

    Then we saw the change, and was so sorry to see that “Live and let live” comfort go as the 911 disaster came to USA after the Iraq invasion so we have lost much more than we ever may thought we had gained.

    Perhaps we should all live as USA did before the Iraq war, and just let the rest of the world “Live and Let live” and just get on with our own world issues to address and fix up.

    Hope you return to the blog, I certainly do respect your views.

    • That was your own personal experience living in the USA, my own experience of being there, is that they’re far more tolerant than certain bloggers in people in NZ make them out to be.

      In fact I have had more racial abuse from kiwis than I have from Americans.

      Got a family member whos been there for over 20 years and have raised four kids there. His community is one he can be proud of.

      A great town, supportive of all.

  16. “Firstly, a few words on Charlie Hebdo, which was often “analyzed” in the British press on the sole basis, apparently, of a few selected cartoons. It might be worth knowing that the main target of Charlie Hebdo was the Front National and the Le Pen family. Next came crooks of all sorts, including bosses and politicians (incidentally, one of the victims of the shooting was an economist who ran a weekly column on the disasters caused by austerity policies in Greece). Finally, Charlie Hebdo was an opponent of all forms of organized religions, in the old-school anarchist sense: Ni Dieu, ni maître! They ridiculed the pope, orthodox Jews and Muslims in equal measure and with the same biting tone. They took ferocious stances against the bombings of Gaza. Even if their sense of humour was apparently inacceptable to English minds, please take my word for it: it fell well within the French tradition of satire – and after all was only intended for a French audience. It is only by reading or seeing it out of context that some cartoons appear as racist or islamophobic. Charlie Hebdo also continuously denounced the pledge of minorities and campaigned relentlessly for all illegal immigrants to be given permanent right of stay. I hope this helps you understand that if you belong to the radical left, you have lost precious friends and allies.” – OLIVIER TONNEAU,

  17. The thing is Locke, the terrorists free speech is inciting murder, the cartoonist free speech is drawing a picture.

    Forget about your ideology, and open your other eye.

    • The thing is Larry Flynt, what you define as the “terrorists”, (in your belief), inciting murder, they define what they are saying as freedom fighting. You are free to say that you think they are terrorists and they are free to say they are freedom fighters. That is fair and just, equal rights for all. They are expressions of opinions. There is no black and white, right or wrong, with Freedom of Speech, which is precisely why it is so important. It gives the listener an opportunity to agree and support something or disagree, disregard or oppose. Both are scenarios are equally important. For example, if you were a Jew in Nazi Germany, and took up arms to defend yourself and others, you would have been labelled a terrorist or equivalent, back then, because that was the popular belief, (at least in Germany). That belief changed in retrospect when there was more information. It’s all subjective, depending on perspective. I think this is what Keith is trying to say, without taking sides.

      • The distinction here is that Jihadists encourage/instruct their followers to kill. The cartoonists mocked a major religion and it’s adherents.

        Keith is drawing false equivalence between the type of expression that directly incites violence and that which merely causes offence.

        There will be some on the Left who will say that any negative characterization involving minorities ends up encouraging discrimination, and should therefore be restricted. If that’s the opinion of commentators they should just come out and say it.

  18. What is Freedom of Speech? The freedom to say, whatever you think, NOT DO, whatever you want. It is a broad spectrum from walking-on-eggshells political correctness or at the other end of the scale, unbridled bigotry and hate. Ironically, the french journalists in my opinion, were using the latter, in their belief that they were exposing the latter. All speech must remain free, even unpopular speech. If anyone loses the right to say what they think, however unpopular, then in turn we will lose the right to voice opposition. Of course unpopular speech can have adverse consequences, so while being free to say it, it can often be unwise.

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