France Remains a Bastion of Free Speech—Will Americans Take Note?

Seeing that Turkish leaders have condemned the French publication Charlie Hebdo, the stark differences in government between the two countries could not be more evident. Turkey’s Erdogan jails journalists, while France remains an ardent defender of the freedom of the press. Turkey has become increasingly authoritarian while France remains a resolute liberal democracy. Freedom of speech is the key difference here, and it shows just how essential this fundamental principle is to liberty.

The gruesome beheading this week of an innocent French school teacher by Islamic extremists for the sole reason that he showed a Charlie Hebdo comic reminds us that France remains a bastion of free speech. The French are literally putting their lives on the line for the issue of free speech because they know how essential the concept is to the preservation of liberty. For the French, freedom of speech is critical to their national fabric. Can the same be said for Americans?

Freedom of speech is a democratic norm that is vital to the flourishing of an open and tolerant society. Those who wish to curtail freedom speech are unquestionably intolerant and non-democratic. Freedom of speech is the most important facilitator of liberty, and we should always err on the side of it no matter how messy it is.

A left-wing outlet, Charlie Hebdo has criticized and mocked the Catholic Church, Marine Le Pen’s National Front, as well as a host of conservative or right-leaning individuals and institutions. However, they have clearly had no qualms with a cartoon depiction of the prophet Muhammed. While it is not my style to insult religion, Charlie Hebdo illustrates the French understanding that free speech does not end at the doorstep of any ideology. This is a universal principle any free society should take to heart.

This begs the question — what would a company like Charlie Hebdo look like in the United States? Certainly they would be attacked by the left on social media and in the mainstream press for their “islamophobic” mockery of Muhammed. We would no doubt see protests on college campuses dominated by the white, elite and hyper-educated. This is emblematic about what America gets wrong about free speech. Americans are so free to speak their mind that they forget how, in the language of the left, “privileged” they are to enjoy such freedoms.

I’ve spoken with folks who have lived under totalitarian regimes. During my time living in Poland, an older gentleman instilled in me that the worst form of psychological oppression is at work when people self-censor themselves. After years of Soviet repression, self-censorship had become endemic. Liberty and individualism stand little chance if basic concepts such as the right to freedom of expression have been discarded.

Sadly, what I saw in Poland during my time there is now happening here. This is the danger that America and liberal democracies throughout the free world risk when they begin to chip away at freedom of speech. A truly representative form of government cannot exist without respect for freedom of expression. It’s increasingly upsetting that folks here in the United States are failing to live up to the principles outlined in Article I of the Constitution.

So, kudos to France. We should be thankful that they have the courage to stand up and support freedom of speech. They do so because they know how intertwined free expression is with self-government.

Adam Brandon is the President of FreedomWorks.