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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Violence should not limit speech

Published: January 17, 2015
Section: Opinions

We live in a troubled time, there’s no doubt about that. We find ourselves the targets of terror, a terror the United States and other nations have been facing for a few decades now. The most recent attacks on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the ensuing terror spree that followed, along with the recent cyberattacks on Sony all have one thing in common: These vicious strikes are aimed at our civil liberties.

For the North Korean government to be so afraid of the movie “The Interview” as to direct cyberattacks against the film’s studio means the regime feels threatened by a raunchy-at-best Seth Rogen comedy. Don’t get me wrong, the movie was surprisingly good for what it was, but it wasn’t worth the North Korean response. The cyberattacks that the FBI says were orchestrated by the regime were not just aimed at Sony; rather they were aimed at our rights to freedom of expression. The attacks were initially successful, too, as they crippled Sony and forced the company to pull the movie—thereby forcing an American movie not to be shown. From across the world, freedom of speech was silenced.

In the United States, we are allowed under our guaranteed liberties the rights to satirize, which gives us all access to The Onion, “The Daily Show,” “South Park” and “Family Guy” that we want without all the frivolous lawsuits involved. We’re allowed to say things and do things as a freedom of expression if it falls under satire without the threat of retaliation. In France, as in much of the developed world, the citizens tend to reserve the same rights.

Charlie Hebdo was targeted in the recent rash of terror plaguing France. The attacks were based in retaliation for satirical depictions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for the vicious attacks, which clearly were meant to silence Charlie Hebdo. These attacks are attempting to suppress our universal right to the freedom of expression, similar to the aims of “The Interview” cyberattack. These are unacceptable strikes on our liberties and we cannot afford to let ourselves be silenced by them.

To let an external, foreign force tell us what we can and cannot say in our own nation is beyond intolerable. It is in essence telling the aggressors that they are able to interfere in our domestic affairs successfully. It is to give in without a fight. I refer to this fight not as a physical one, but as one of defiance. Initially, Sony pulled the film from theaters out of fear of attacks on civilians, which were probably baseless (especially given that the supposed North Korean affiliated aggressors were very far away). This development essentially told the cyberattackers that they could silence us from saying things they didn’t agree with. No matter how stupid and offensive the movie might’ve been, it is still an example of free speech: the exercising of our (more specifically Seth Rogen’s) freedom of expression.

In the end, Sony did end up releasing the film as an act of defiance against its attackers, telling them that they cannot compromise American rights simply because they didn’t agree with the content.

The same situation exists with the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Terrorists bent on retaliation stormed into the office and massacred 12 people, all because they were so upset over what was put into a newspaper—a satirical one no less. This is not a proportionate response, and the newspaper’s response—that is, the continuation of the paper and thereby the writers’ rights to free speech—is the righteous thing to do.

Free expression should be universally guaranteed to everybody, whether it is raunchy movie producers or satirical newspaper editors. Everyone has a right to have and express their own opinions, whether they upset somebody else or not. Violence and threats of violence are not justifiable responses to disagreeable expressions of free speech. People should be free to express themselves free of any looming threat of retaliation.

There are, of course, limitations. To threaten and to harm the lives of others is not an example of exercising free expression. Expressing one’s beliefs peacefully and doing so violently is not the same thing, and the difference must be noted. Peaceful expression should be encouraged. Charlie Hebdo should be allowed to keep satirizing, and the movie industry should be allowed to continue to release stupid comedies. To threaten or hurt others in response to others’ peaceful opinions is fundamentally wrong. When we put controversial opinions out in the open, we should always expect disagreement, but we shouldn’t have to fear for our lives when we do so to a point in which we must decide whether it is even worth it to speak our minds. If we get to that point, we will have truly been robbed of our basic liberties.