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Q&A: Tully Center for Free Speech Director Roy Gutterman on Charlie Hebdo Violence
Roy S. Gutterman, a graduate of the Newhouse School and the Syracuse University College of Law, is an expert on communications law and the First Amendment. He is director of Newhouse’s Tully Center for Free Speech. In the wake of the killing of 12 people at the offices of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo last week, presumably by individuals who objected to what they saw as the mocking of their religion, Gutterman spoke about the massacre and about freedom of expression in general. The remaining staff of Charlie Hebdo, meanwhile, announced plans to print an unprecedented 3 million copies of its next edition, to be issued Wednesday.
Q. In the wake of previous violence against the publication were the Charlie Hebdo staff, in your view, brave or foolish to keep on publishing this content?
A. The editors and cartoonists at the newspaper, Charlie Hebdo were tremendously brave in continuing to publish these potentially offensive and inflammatory cartoons despite a previous attack on the publication and threats against the publication. This is a satirical publication, which in many ways exists to mock and offend. Some might view their work as tantamount to kicking a hornets’ nest. The cartoons were offensive and insulting to many, but comedy is sometimes like that. Nevertheless, the violence against the newspaper is sad and inexcusable.
Q. Many publications, web sites and broadcast outlets have expressed support for Charlie Hebdo in the wake of this tragedy. Will this support translate into greater support for free speech, or will this violence have a chilling effect on what outlets will dare to post?
It is just as difficult to declare one publisher right and another wrong as it is to clearly define what is humorous or downright offensive. There is no doubt that publishing or republishing the cartoons or creating other offensive content like that may target other news outlets for violence. Newspapers, magazines, television networks and websites take lots of things into consideration before publishing or broadcasting, and fear of violent reprisals, unfortunately, is yet another consideration. It is sad the editors now have to weigh threats of violence in their decision-making process and this will surely have a chilling effect on the media. The violence against Charlie Hebdo comes in the wake of the killings of journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff. These brazen attacks on the press are bringing these issues to the public’s attention. I do not think the public has much understanding of the hazards journalists face in bringing news and information to them. I hope the public will be more supportive of the press and continue to condemn these attacks. Hopefully some of this public pressure may lead to stronger press laws and protections while discouraging extremists from attacking the press.
Q. Where should cultural sensitivity come into play in satire?
A. One thing Charlie Hebdo is famous for is the notion of being an “equal opportunity offender.” Over the years, it looks like no institution or religion was spared ridicule in its pages. But this is a humor magazine, in the vein of the Onion or “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” A joke can certainly go too far, but that is sort of the reason why humor should be protected. In a U.S. Supreme Court case in 1971, Justice Harlan famously said one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric. Perhaps we could paraphrase that to say, one person’s joke may be another’s insult.
Q. The American film industry very quickly reacted to threats from hackers before the film “The Interview” was scheduled to premiere, in contrast to the Charlie Hebdo staff, which kept putting out the same product for years under the threat of violence. Do you see this as a cultural difference or the difference between the film and print industries, or personal courage or something else?
A. There are certainly parallels between the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the recent controversy involving Sony’s movie “The Interview” with regards to threats of violence against satire and content that many, at least in the West, would consider humorous. But Sony’s decision to pull the movie from theaters and make it available online seems more vested in business interests and preventing the release of further embarrassing information that the hackers threatened to leak. Certainly, Sony did not want to risk any violence at the screenings. After much public criticism about its self-censorship, Sony made use of the infinite capabilities of the internet by releasing the film online for purchase or rental. Sony then set a record for online movie distribution and got the content out to the public after all. Films have never been immune from censorship battles, but we are now seeing how the power of the internet can be used to bypass censorship or threats of censorship around the world.
Q. Why is free expression so important?
A. As human beings, we have thoughts and beliefs. We communicate and identify ourselves by the ways we express ourselves. Free expression inspires art, creativity, invention and fuels dialogues. In many ways, free expression and free speech are human rights.