“Je ne suis pas d’accord avec ce que vous dites, mais je me battrai pour que vous ayez le droit de le dire.”
“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
This magnificent declaration of free speech, tolerance, and liberty, attributed to the great 17th century French champion of liberty Voltaire, is now whirling around the globe in French and English, in print and online, in tweets, memes, newsfeeds and editorials.
The outcry over the murder of 12 people at Charlie Hebdo — killed for exercising their right to speak freely, killed for creating satire, killed for drawing cartoons — has thrust those words and the principle behind them into the minds of millions.
It is heartening to see such an overwhelming response in favor of freedom of speech, one of the most important and sacred of rights.
Freedom of speech has not always been tolerated well even here in America. Right up through the 1960s many novels, including books now considered masterpieces by authors like Henry Miller and William Burroughs, were illegal to sell. For most of America’s history, some words were unprintable, and writing about some ideas — birth control, for example — was forbidden. In the 1960s, Lenny Bruce, one of America’s greatest and most incisive comedians, was constantly harassed and arrested merely for using four-letter words in nightclubs; in despair, he died of a heroin overdose. Theater owners were arrested for showing sexually explicit films, convenience store clerks arrested for selling adult magazines.
Those who stood for freedom of expression in the past, even here in tolerant America, often fought a lonely and difficult struggle. All of us have benefited tremendously from their courage and passion.
Even today, even in America, those on the cutting edge of speech face threats. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders, Joe Randazzo, former editor of the satirical publication The Onion, wrote at MSNBC: “I’ve personally spoken on the phone with at least two individuals who threatened to rape me and kill my family” because of his writing.
Randazzo continues: “Satire must always accompany any free society. It is an absolute necessity. Even in the most repressive medieval kingdoms, they understood the need for the court jester, the one soul allowed to tell the truth through laughter. It is, in many ways, the most powerful form of free speech because it is aimed at those in power, or those whose ideas would spread hate. It is the canary in the coalmine, a cultural thermometer, and it always has to push, push, push the boundaries of society to see how much it’s grown.”
Around the world, crowds numbering in the thousands have gathered in defense of this most fundamental of freedoms, some waving pencils and pens, some holding signs reading “Je Suis Charlie” — “I Am Charlie.” Cartoonists worldwide have rallied to honor their fallen brothers-in-ink with an outpouring of creative and defiant tributes.
How glorious, how thrilling to see such passionate defense of free speech in response to those who would use violence to shut out views they disagree with.
Free speech is a value millions hold dearly. But that wasn’t always true. We believe so strongly in free speech today because of the centuries of political activism that won that freedom, defined it, argued for its value, and made it a central part of our lives.
As we libertarians build a consensus on other fundamental freedoms — peace, the right to control our bodies, the right to own and keep the fruits of our labors — we will see these ideas, too, embraced by the people of the world, and vigorously defended when attacked.
I’ll end with another quote from Voltaire, with a message I hope will be taken up one day soon with the same passion as the one at the beginning of this column:
“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”