Charlie Hebdo, free speech and the right to human dignity

Today marks the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, in which terrorists gunned down cartoonists of the incendiary French magazine Charlie Hebdo and later, ordinary Jews at a Jewish supermarket. A debate ensued around the world, including Australia, in the aftermath of the attacks on the limits of free speech and the role of religion in society.

In Australia, some public leaders used it as an opportunity to again attack Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act that prohibits acts that are meant to offend, insult or humiliate a person on the basis of his race, colour or national or ethnic origin. 

In response, OHPI published a lengthy report “Je Suis Humain: free speech in the shadow of Charlie Hebdo” which discussed issues of antisemitism, freedom of speech and expression, a free press, freedom from persecution, human dignity, bigotry, religion, blasphemy, self-censorship, and government censorship. We also extensively debated the fine line between free speech and the right to human dignity, and how do we debate Islam the religion without demonising or marginalising the people who practice it.

The report was discussed at the Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism and a paper, part based on the report, was published by the Kantor Centre later in the year.

Below we share the key recommendations we made in the report for governments and social media companies, who are responsible for managing public debate today. These are as valid today, as they were a year ago.

  • The standard of what constitutes offence in Australia, both in terms of “generally accepted community standards” for classification, and in terms of “offensiveness” at law in a discrimination context, should not change.
  • Muslim leaders should clearly differentiate between content Islam may find offensive, and anti-Muslim content which society as whole should find offensive. Public condemnation should be reserved for the latter.
  • Facebook and other social media platforms should prohibit gratuitously offensive images of religious, national or ethnic symbols. Under this policy social media companies should prohibit gratuitously offensive images of Mohammed.
  • Facebook and other social media companies should prohibit all hate speech directed against people who are Muslim.
  • A cartoon should not be considered hate speech merely because it depicts Mohammed.
  • Cartoons portraying Muslims through negative stereotypes, using Mohammed to symbolise all Muslims, should be considered a form of hate speech.
  • Social media platform providers should not treat content which is merely critical of the ideas of Islam, but does not extend to inciting hate against all people who are Muslim, as hate speech. Platform providers should not treat mere criticism of what is presented as Islamic practise by various Muslim countries as hate speech.
  • That content be considered anti-Muslim hate speech when, for example, it: dehumanises Muslims; stereo types all Muslims, for example as terrorists; advocates the exclusion of Muslims from society, such as content claiming Muslims can’t be a part of society; denies human rights to Muslims; holds all Muslims responsible for the acts of extremists; or applies a double standard to Muslim communities or Muslim countries, for example making demands which would not be made of other countries in similar circumstances.
  • That the divisiveness of Charlie Hebdo be recognised, and that it not be made into a symbol of the ideal of free speech.
  • The Australian Parliament should consider adding the phrase “religious belief or activity” to Section 18C(1)(b) of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth).

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