01.08.2015 08:37 AM

Spineless and clueless: Charlie Hebdo, the Toronto Star and free speech

I’ve written books about the notion that, when it comes to speech, reasonable limits should indeed exist. Calling for genocide against a group of people, for example. Holocaust denial in the classroom. Child pornography. Here’s what I wrote about the issue of cartoons and religion almost exactly eight years ago to the day on this web site:

“I believe there are reasonable and proper limits on human expression. I believe that words and images have power. Words and images have the power to wound and hurt and, sometimes, persuade people to kill.

I believe that we are entitled, as a society, to sanction (civilly or criminally) those who use words and images to deliberately or recklessly inflict harm on others – as with laws relating to the propagation of hate, or laws prohibiting child pornography, or defamation codes, or laws designed to sanction pornography that promotes violence against women and children.

And, yes: I believe we are entitled as society to place reasonable limits on the expression of actual hatred towards religious faiths. I believe that words and images that expose the tenets of a person’s faith to hatred should be condemned and, where appropriate, punished. Expressing hatred about someone else’s spiritual beliefs is not free speech. It is hatred, and it is almost always calculated to cause pain and hurt.

Which brings us, two years later, to the global debate that raged about cartoons depicting the prophet Mohamed as a terrorist – and Ezra Levant’s decision to publish them, repeatedly. The cartoons set off a wave of emotional protests and threats on a global scale – and fostered a vigorous debate about what constitutes free speech. That debate has been reignited by Ezra’s appearance before the Alberta human rights body a few days ago. (And I sense he is genuine about his libertarian view, by the way.)

After [the 2000 federal election campaign, in which I did this], conservative writer Claire Hoy had written something about me, so I invited him to lunch. He showed up, and we had a great lunch and a great debate about censorship. Hoy told me he objected to hate laws.

So I asked Claire this: “Don’t you think there is a difference between a young guy painting a happy face on his school wall – and a skinhead who paints a swastika, and the words ‘DEATH TO THE JEWS’ on the front of a synagogue? Isn’t there a qualitative difference between one action, and the other? Hate laws are designed to address that difference, aren’t they?”

There is indeed a difference between an act of mischief, and an expression of hatred. And that’s my point, here. Certain words and images can cause actual fear and pain and hate.

In early 2006, at a band practice, we were talking about another Toronto punk group, called – and I’m not making this up – Tit Fuck Me Jesus.

I’m a church-going Catholic, and that band’s name doesn’t offend me in the slightest. Nor the stuff found on the covers of Black Flag records, nor the songs by my beloved Bad Religion.

But that’s just me. And I can certainly see how someone else could be offended – really and truly hurt – by something like a band called Tit Fuck Me Jesus. And, just because I’m okay with that, doesn’t mean that someone else has to be.

That’s pretty much where I end up on the cartoons that depict Islam’s prophet as a murderer. You might not find such things hateful or even hurtful, but many others do. Deeply, truly, honestly.

And, when all is said and done, what Muslims seek from the rest of us is not anything we do not already seek from them. Which is, mainly, a modicum of respect for the things they hold closest to their hearts.

I say they deserve that respect.”

Sorry for the length of that excerpt, but I wanted to make a point, which is: I don’t think you can’t readily label me a knee-jerk anything-goes libertarian.  Nope.

But this morning, I just about drove my truck off the road as I listened to CBC Radio’s Metro Morning. On it, the publisher of the Toronto Star, John Cruickshank, talked about how it was “wrong” – he used that word repeatedly – to publish even a link to the cartoons for which the staff at Charlie Hebdo actually died. I couldn’t take notes because I was driving, but Cruickshank – whilst whinging and sermonizing, without irony, about “free speech” – also said the Star wouldn’t publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons because they lack “context.”

I could go on ad nauseum about the nausea that induced in me, here, but let me be brief, because I have to get to work: Cruickshank sounds like a nice guy, but he’s full of shit.  Here’s why.

God gave us the powers of judgment. In Her infinite wisdom, She gave us the ability to look, and listen, and consider. She bestowed upon us the ability to recognize that there is, indeed, a qualitative difference between publishing a cartoon poking fun at a religious leader, and publishing a propaganda poster calling for all Muslims to be exterminated.

That distinction is apparently lost on Cruickshank and some other journalists this morning. If you look at what Charlie Hebdo was doing, you would see they weren’t in any way agitating for genocide, or knowingly propagating hatred.

Over the years, they were publishing cartoons that poked fun at several religions and religious figures. During the time that they did so, Islam became the world’s fastest-growing religion, at a rate of 2.2 per cent every year. While Charlie Hebdo was publishing satirical cartoons, to put a fine point on it, the sky – filled, as it is, with deities – did not fall.

Decide for yourself. I’m no free speech lunatic, and I did just that. Below, here are the Charlie Hebdo cartoons the Toronto Star – which invokes “free speech” for every single idiotic thing that they do, day in and day out – refuses to publish. My hunch is that some of you will look at them, some of you will laugh, some of you won’t, and all of you will go about your day (as I am about to), undeterred.

And if, well, one or two want to kill me for publishing them, send me a note, and we’ll arrange for a time and place to get together, to save us both some time.



  1. doconnor says:

    Some of the cartoons they have run had the sole purpose of offending Muslims. According to The Star “The cartoons depicted Muhammad naked and in demeaning or pornographic poses.” Since those where likely the major trigger for the attack, would you suggest they be published by The Star?

    I am proud to live in Canada where doing that would be protected by freedom of expression. I am also proud that if a magazine did that in Canada, it would be condemned by almost the entire population and quickly go out of business.

  2. Tiger says:

    I’m not sure the Star itself got the memo from its publisher — go to their editorial page online, and you see a photo of the late Stephane Charbonnier holding up his magazine in front of the remains of the office that was destroyed in 2011. (The one with Mohammed as guest-editor — 100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter.)


    • Tiger says:

      But as it happens, I _am_ more of a free speech absolutist than our host here.

      Typically I’m of the view that if someone threatens to do something to you if you publish, that’s precisely when you MUST publish. If someone asks you to respect their sensibilities (asks, not demands), that’s when you ought to seriously consider respecting their sensibilities (if reasonable).

      • Peter says:

        What about the argument that, if we all feel compelled to attend Je suis Charlie vigils and re-publish cartoons we otherwise would consider offensive or tasteless, thereby alienating or even frightening perfectly decent and patriotic Muslim-Canadians at such an emotional time, the terrorists will have won? In fact, they’ve been very open about admitting such a goal. Granted we are all still reeling and a bit emotionally off-balance, but I’m getting the impression a lot of folks think publishing scurrilous cartoons and brandishing pencils at mass vigils is an effective blow in the war on terror. I understand the “we musn’t be cowed” argument, but I think maintaining our civility and remembering who “we” are (hint: it’s a big tent) is the priority.

        Resolve, not kneejerk emoting. I’ll go out on a limb and bet if you polled Muslim-Canadians, a larger number would support bombing ISIS than re-publishing the cartoons.

        • Tiger says:

          Sorry, no, not buying it.

          If a significant number of outlets don’t publish the cartoons now, the lesson is that if you kill enough journalists, you get your way.

          That’s a BAD precedent to set.

  3. kre8tv says:

    My view on all this remains the same:

    1. It’s not nice to make fun of someone else’s beliefs. Drawing pictures of someone’s prophet can be upsetting to some people. Let’s try to be nice to each other. BUT (and yeah it’s a big one)
    2. In a free and democratic society where free thought is a value, being nice to each other is not mandatory. It’s preferable. But if we can’t be nice to each other, this does not give anyone the grounds to respond with violence–be it through action or the threat of action.
    3. I’ll defend to the teeth the right of anyone to practice their religion. Where I draw the line is where ANY religion tries to tell other people what to do. I call the Christian right on their BS, and other faiths as well when they cross that line. And I am calling Islam on this. The Muslim faith has a big frickin problem on its hands in how it *chooses* to perceive blasphemy. It is not enough for Imams to denounce these animals in Paris. It’s time they had a serious, honest and hard discussion about what is acceptable and not acceptable response to perceived blasphemy. Because if they don’t, this is going to get worse in all kinds of way that almost none of us want to see happen. That last sentence I write with great sadness, not anger.

  4. King Prick says:

    When it comes to speech, Warren, there should be absolutely no limits on what a person can say. I once believed, like you, that “reasonable limits,” made sense, however, free speech isn’t free if it’s limited in any capacity, is it? it’s an illusion controlled by government and whiners.

    If someone wants to call a person an offensive name, who cares? The problem, as I see it, is this: When free speech has “reasonable limits,” people tend to get killed or hurt. Who decides those limits? Why do they get to choose? Why are their choices better than my own? Unlike some, I want to hear the idiots spew their bile. At least I know where it is. At least I can find it. At least i can monitor it.

    In fairness, I would never condone violence, I’m a prick, not a fighter. I abhor what Saudi Arabia does. I abhor what Israel does. I abhor what ISIS does. I abhor what America does. I am chilled each time I see armless, legless and headless men women and children strewn about streets of the Middle East for instance, looking like broken, bloodied, dolls.

    Speech, if I understand you correctly, should not be and isn’t free. In some respects you’re right because as so many wrongly assume, our soldiers apparently fight and die for that right. (So if there’s no right to full, unencumbered, free speech, why are we sending men and women to die on foreign soil again?)

    Hate speech laws are B.S. If I don’t like something, I should be able to say whatever I want provided it’s not slanderous or libelous. Most would agree that’s why slander and libel laws exist. They exist to protect us from malicious and defamatory attacks by use of words? If a person says something defamatory in print or spoken word, they can be held accountable in a court. We’re talking about words here. Words don’t hate. Words don’t kill people. People kill people. Blaming words is like blaming a gun instead of the person holding it.

    In other respects, your invoking God and her choice to allow us the powers of judgement… Who judges? Judge not lest ye be judged were God’s words. We don’t have the power of judgement anymore. if we can’t put a cop on trial for killing an unarmed teenager, we sorely lack the judgement you so readily call upon as a god given gift.

    The namby pamby liberal and neoconservative baby wipes that have shat on our constitution, and cater only to big business instead of people have decimated our ability to reasonably judge for ourselves what words are sensible or and what words are not. Government stifling speech to any degree is an affront to all democracy. It just is. To argue otherwise is cowardly.

    It’s easy to point at this tragic event and say: “Crazy Muslim Extremist,” but the truth is there are idiot extremists on all sides.

    Christian terrorists/extremists would include the KKK, The Iron Guard in Romania, Guy Fawkes (who has a celebratory day named after him,) the Anti-Balaka militants in Central Africa, the anti-Hindu nutbars in northern India, (hell, even World Vision has been accused of inciting hatred towards non christians in Odessa for example.) how about the anti-abortion windbags that have murdered or attacked so many doctors across the globe? What about Gush Emunim who bombed the mayors of West Bank cities in the 80’s and planned to blow up Temple Mount Mosques until they were found out. Keshet, who’s mandate as a group was to blow up people’s homes. And lets not forget Baruch Goldstein and the Kach party that lionized him for killing 29 muslims and injuring 125 other people. He was American born no less. There are crazy people everywhere and they’re getting crazier because they can’t be heard. They have no voice. I’m not just talking about religious zealots but unions, workers, parents, people like you and me…. We have been castrated by anti speech laws which are conveniently branded, “hate speech” laws.
    We know these groups exist. We know there’s lots. Let them speak. Let them show their faces. Let us not stifle their speech but rather embrace it so that people like you and me and millions of others can point and laugh at their foolishness and arrogance.

    I have sadness for those killed yesterday but be realistic. Those cartoonists were fighting for free speech more than anyone because they too know that it no longer exists. It’s stifled and it shouldn’t be. their deaths were senseless but not in vain. In a free society we have laws for crime but laws for words, art and ideals… That’s just bullshit.

  5. nopw says:

    I’m sorry, but you’ve dodged the question.

    You write “I say they deserve that respect.” Well, sure – I agree with that. I’d say most people do. But there are some people who won’t give Muslims/Catholics/Jews/Whoever respect, and who will draw Muhammad/Name their band Tit Fuck Me Jesus/Claim the Holocaust didn’t happen.

    So – what do we do to those people? Do we lock them in jail? Or do we say, well, it is nice to give respect, but you don’t have to. You are not obligated not offend people.

    I vote for the latter.

    • Warren says:

      I haven’t dodged any question. You just wanted to make a snotty comment, and skimmed over what I actually wrote.

      I will defend to the death your right to skim and be snotty.

  6. Alex says:

    Warren, I sometimes disagree with what you say, but on this issue I think you are spot on. I agree that there is a world of difference between someone painting a swastika on a wall calling for the extermination of Jews, or someone drawing a picture calling for the murder of all Muslims, and the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo drew. If someone wrote a manual on how to commit rape, or published a brochure on how to abuse children or kill minorities, or created a TV show with the sole purpose of teaching how to commit violence against gay people, then, I would not hesitate for a second to prosecute them.

    But cartoons that poke fun? Not a chance. That is why I completely agree with your critique of those who equate the Charlie Hedbo cartoons with hatemongers who advocate for the destruction of specific groups.

  7. BrianK says:

    Isn’t this a question of journalistic best practices, though? I didn’t hear the broadcast and maybe Cruickshank addressed this, but here you have a case where 12 people have died, and it’s reasonable to assume that they died in large part due to the publication of some images. Aren’t those images an essential part of the story that’s being reported on? How can someone be a responsible journalist and knowingly omit a massive piece of the story? And from a pure business standpoint, if the idea is “well, if people really want to see the images, they can Google them”, isn’t that just a way of saying “if people really want, they can use Google to find media outlets that do our job more thoroughly than we do”? If the desire to not offend anybody trumps a newspaper’s desire to report the news, that is a total abdication of professional responsibility, not to mention morally pathetic.

  8. Annnd here’s CBC expressing in video why they won’t be showing them – because, apparently, part of their mandate is to promote tolerance and respect as opposed to report on the news. It’s really quite breathtaking to watch when you’re not throwing up in your mouth. http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/charlie-hebdo-attacks-why-hasn-t-cbc-shown-prophet-muhammad-caricatures-1.2894322

  9. Joe says:

    I’m so fucking pissed off it’s not even remotely funny.

    In light of the recent mass murders at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, some media outlets decided to republish the cartoons that the murderers seemingly took offence to.

    Several other media outlets decided not too.


    It’s because republishing those offensive pieces of satire could effect their bottom line.

    These people are the most offensive of all cowards and should be shunned forthwith by all and sundry.

    It’s extraordinary that in the past few weeks, a film deemed offensive by the murderous regime of North Korea was barred from appearing in certain areas for fear that someone would retaliate.

    Cooler heads prevailed and the film, “The Interview” was finally made available for all to see(even some lucky and courageous souls in North Korea).

    Yet, no one has called out the New York Times, CNN, CBC, MSNBC, The Toronto Star, NBC, CBS and others for refusing to republish the cartoons that caused the deaths of more than 12 courageous men and women.

    Where is the president of the USA and the prime minister of Canada and the leaders of other countries? Have they not counted themselves as those that consider freedom the most important of all rights? They were there a few weeks ago when The Interview was being attacked.

    Where are they now?

    Well done Warren:)

  10. Nicola Timmerman says:

    I heard a regular francophone commentator replacing temporarily Jean Lapierre on the Aaron Rand show on CJAD Montreal today that the francophone media like Radio Canada have shown the Mohammad cartoons while most of the English media such as CBC have not shown the cartoons. Solidarity with French people or courage? Anyone know if this is true?

  11. Nicola Timmerman says:

    Have found a list of French (Canadian) media who published the cartoons:
    Le Devoir.
    Le Journal de Montréal.
    Le Journal de Québec.
    24 Heures.
    La Presse.
    Le Soleil.
    Le Quotidien.
    Le Droit.
    La Tribune.
    La Voix de l’Est.
    Le Nouveliste and Métro

    • davie says:

      I guess we cannot choose which examples to stand by in defense of press freedom.
      I’ve looked at few of those cartoons from Charlie Hebdo magazine, and try to imagine what reaction there would be were Moses, Jesus Christ or Pope Francis depicted the way Mohammed is.

      Sounds like it is over as I type this. The suspects are dead.

      The extent to which press freedom has been damaged will take time to measure.

      What is easier to measure is the extent to which ghoulish political grandstanding and opportunistic legislating of increased police powers is happening.

  12. Steve T says:

    I think you have highlighted the key element of this whole matter. There may be things that are distasteful, repugnant, and offensive. Perhaps some of the Hebdo cartoons fit that description. However, regardless, it is NEVER acceptable to use “being offended” as an excuse for murder.

    It is sad that the debate, in some quarters, has focused on whether the cartoons are appropriate. That isn’t the point. Appropriate or not, slaughtering people is not justified.

    • Doconnor says:

      “However, regardless, it is NEVER acceptable to use “being offended” as an excuse for murder.”

      Who in the world said it was? The question is “is being distasteful justifaction for not publishing?”

  13. Al in Cranbrook says:

    And how many “news” outlets now refuse to print/air anything remotely skeptical of AGW?

    How many on this very forum endorse this policy of censorship of science that contradicts the narrative du jour?

    Just thought I’d run that one up the same pole and see who salutes, eh?

    IMHO, every bit as threatening to freedom and democracy…if not national security.

    • Africon says:

      Bingo !!
      Sadly, it is now those former bastions of free speech – our universities and media that have come full circle and forgotten the value of open debate.

      This is not a left right divide over the long term.
      Do not forget the mocking humor of Charlie Chaplin and those who opposed his very effective war on one particular opponent of free speech.

  14. patrick says:

    First, I have to admit that I approve of anything that mocks religion and exposes it for the nonsense that it is.
    Religions fear humour and mockery: an inanely serious debate about angels on pinheads or what is the appropriate way to split an egg to honour a gold chicken means that magical fantasies are being taken seriously, but point out how absurd the contrived myths of magically moving mountains, virgin births and the importance of silly hats actually are and the fanatical are defenceless. The absurdists and satirists are the biggest threat to religious fantasy because it can’t be debated or silenced with arcane knowledge or parsed trivia.
    Really a long winded way of explaining that I understand the assault on Hebdo by delusional, pathetic losers. A cartoon, any cartoon, comic, joke etc. is bound to inspire outrage, especially in a religion that on the extreme end has not yet figured out that humour is best dealt with silence or claims that you don’t get the joke as the catholic church has with the like of “Father Ted”. The response by the slighted can only be extreme because there is no other way to fight back and if you let one person laugh then another is bound to join in and suddenly the religious straw man collapses not at the point of a gun, but from collective giggles.
    Perhaps that is why various media outlets, or rather editorial boards have refused to publish various mocking cartoons, not so much out of respect for religion, but out of a subconscious fear that any assault on a faith is an assault on all faiths.
    Otherwise I don’t understand how every free media outlet in the world hasn’t, as a point of solidarity, as a point of principle, not political comment, published the offending cartoon on its front page.

  15. Africon says:

    Well stated.
    And although I personally find some of those cartoons offensive and unnecessary, I have no time for any humorless or organized religion.
    Let’s not forget that just a few hundred years ago it was the humorless, misogynist and dictatorial Catholic church that were the barbarous enemy of any free spirited person.
    That is why the current Pope is such a breath of fresh air.

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