Charlie Hebdo attack

9 January 2015

The recent attack on the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo has brought into sharp focus issues of freedom of speech that teachers may want to explore in class.

Twelve people were killed in the initial attack on 7 January, including the editor, cartoonists and other staff working for the paper, a caretaker and two policemen.

Here are some useful links to resources that can support teaching about these events.

Free speech vs causing offence

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Does freedom of speech allow people to say, write and draw things that might be offensive to others? Charlie Hebdo was well known for publishing provocative cartoons poking fun at many different religions, including cartoons portraying Muhammed. Of course, no ‘offence’ ever deserves a murderous response such as this one. But students could explore to what extent they think there should be a limit on free speech. What if it’s hate-filled, racist or homophobic? How far should freedom of speech be balanced with other rights? When does causing offence tip over into abuse? Does someone’s right to cause offence trump someone’s right not to be offended?

In the UK there are various statutes which prohibit ‘hate speech’. But following the ‘feel free to insult me’ campaign by Reform Section 5, the crime of “insulting” someone through words or behaviour has been dropped (BBC News: ‘Insulting words’ crime ditched).

It might also be worth asking whether the attackers were really ‘avenging’ some perceived offence? If all they want to do is stir up fear and hatred, what do your students think would be the best way for society to respond?

If you want to think more about the power of cartoons with your students you could download our Cartoons activity kit. Or use our Debate activity kit to support discussion and reflection.

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