By FEDERICA BRIZZI
Free speech is one of the foundational concepts of modern societies. The constitutions of countries like Italy, the United Sates or the United Kingdom, for example, hail free speech as one of the cardinal values upon which the whole society must be built upon.
The need for an unfettered expression of ideas, though, has a history that dates back to Ancient Greece, to the times of Socrates and the democratic configuration of the polis. Since then, the concept infiltrated some of the greatest legal documents in history, such as the Magna Carta (1215), the Bill of Rights (1689), or “The Declaration of the Rights of Man” (1789), even though such formulations were still reluctant to include all members and contexts of society.
Today, instead, freedom of speech for all people is recognised by global institutions as an international human right, to the point of being almost internalised by the modern man. This is perhaps why what happened on January 7 in the Parisian headquarters of the weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo did sound all the more striking to people all around the world.
It was on Wednesday, January 7, in the morning, when two masked gunmen, later identified as Cherif and Said Kouachi, infiltrated the Charlie Hebdo building on Rue Nicolas-Appert, Paris, and killed 12 people. Among them where the editor Stephane Charbonnier, four cartoonists and a guest. Following the Charlie Hebdo attack, over the two following days a total of other five people were killed in related shootings, terrorising the whole of France – and the Western world with it. At the roots of the terrorist attack is the publication of satirical cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad by the magazine, which had created controversy and prompted terrorist threats since 2006.
The Charlie Hebdo attack has quickly become the contemporary symbol of a possible threat to our cherished freedom of speech. Following the tragedy, indeed, the Internet responded quickly and people from all over the world started using the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie (#IAmCharlie) as a way to express both their support to the victims, and especially to analyse what freedom of speech is and entails for each one of us. “As banal as it can sound freedom of speech is a right that should always be defended,” says John Cabot University’s recent graduate, Sofia Martuscelli.
“Even though I don’t agree on the content published by Charlie Hebdo, what happened was against any human considerations and a violation of our freedom of expression,” Martuscelli said. Underlining the idea that freedom of speech is not only a right but also a way to incite “a diversity of ideas, points of view and a safe environment where they can be voiced and heard,” and also reiterating the fact that any violent attack against someone’s right to self-expression is to be condemned, senior International Affairs student Lazar Vujaklija says that “Charlie Hebdo often allowed itself to showcase material that did not so obviously intend to provoke thought and debate but rather to incite controversy and disapproval.” On the other end of the spectrum there are people who are skeptical about the universalising concept of freedom of speech. Communications student Alex Summers says “The terrorists’ values are different, so is their culture and religion. And we give ourselves the power to make fun of it on political cartoons that everyone reads and cover it all up with ‘freedom of speech’”.
Indeed, Charlie Hebdo’s attack helps us to shed a light on a concept we have been grown to take for granted, which is that of the freedom of self-expression. The event brings up, along with a widespread fear, ethical issues that question the nature and the extent of the said right itself. Let us then ask ourselves, “are you Charlie?”