Local opinions vary on religious satire after Charlie Hebdo

The Sanctuary of Elon Community Church
The Sanctuary of Elon Community Church, photo by Dalton Cox

by Dalton Cox

Community members of Elon University and the greater Triad area typically expressed a need to exercise the right of freedom of expression with a respect to all religious traditions. It has been over a month since French jihadists initiated a terrorist attack that began at the office of Charlie Hebdo and ended with the deaths of 17 people. As the initial shock of the violence waned, a global debate began in which seemingly everyone from schoolchildren to Pope Francis weighed in on the perpetual question – where does democracy draw the line between freedom of expression and offensive speech?

Pope Francis particularly was cited by CNN as promoting religious reverence above any disrespectful expression.

“One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith,” Francis said.

Taken in the meditation garden of Elon University's Numen Lumen Pavilion
Taken in the meditation garden of Elon University’s Numen Lumen Pavilion, photo by Dalton Cox

Local religious leaders also spoke of limits to be regarded by satirists in such cases. Reverend Marisa Thompson of Burlington’s Holy Comforter Episcopal Church echoed Francis’ opinion that free speech has its boundaries.

“I’m mixed on religious satire,” Thompson said. “I think that being respectful of other traditions is paramount to us as human beings. It’s also about time and place [regarding religious satire]. It’s one thing to satire a particular piece. It’s another to satire a particular leader.”

Outside the church, most Americans seemingly disagree with this ethical exception to free speech. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research center, 60 percent of adults believed it was it was “okay” for Charlie Hebdo to publish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, although any illustration of Muhammad is considered offensive to Islamic tradition.

Local community members seemed to agree with this opinion. Views differed, however, regarding the opinion that the media should consider risk as a factor when practicing the right to free speech.

“I think that people do have the right to say whatever they want to, but you have to know that you might draw negative attention,” Alexandra Fung, an Elon first year, said.“If they want to take the risk of drawing that attention, they can do that.”

Alexandra Fung
Alexandra Fung, photo by Dalton Cox

The consideration of such risk was commonly echoed across generations. Religious Studies Professor Mark Justad of Guilford College shared his similar view.

“It’s a judgment call every time,” Justad said.

Still, other community members argued that risk should not be an overwhelming factor when deciding whether to publish offensive material.

“I don’t think you should not be able to produce those articles because of religious intimidation, through the religious extremist lens,” Chris Essman, an intern at Elon’s Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual life, said. “It’s obviously a generalization to say that every Muslim acts that way, but I do think we need to be more critical of religions that don’t hold themselves accountable to those sorts of reactions.”

As one evaluates these opposing opinions of the consideration of risk, individuals are able to determine which viewpoint seems the most valid to them. The same reasoning applies for many when justifying freedom of expression. Elon media law professor Jonathan Jones explained that in this marketplace of ideas it is easier for citizens to determine reasonable social ethics.

“Even when we’re dealing with ideas that may be on the fringes of society, it’s important to allow people to express themselves so that their ideas can be put forward and society can evaluate those ideas and reject them as is appropriate,” Jones said.

According to Jones, this principle is applied even more liberally to free speech in the United States than in France and most western European countries. In the United States, constitutional law protects the press from any censorship of religious satire.

“I don’t particularly agree with the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo was showing . . . but I will argue and fight for the right to publish those kinds of things because I think it is important to have in a free society to have a free flow of ideas.”

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