Satire, Media, and the Boundaries of Free Speech

Free Speech seems like such a simple concept. It is part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the American Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Despite how basic a right free speech seems to be, recently a great fight protecting free speech and denying censorship seems to have begun.  

By now, many of us have seen ‘Je Suis Charlie’ plastered all over social media, TV, and even on George Clooney’s lapel. For those who don’t know, Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine in France that was victim to a terrorist attack by two Islamic gunmen after publishing various controversial depictions of Muhammad. Twelve people were killed by the gunmen; this was the second attack on Charlie Hebdo; they were also firebombed and hacked in 2011, which was also due to controversial Islamic cartoons. Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine by nature and pokes fun at all different walks of life; nobody is left out of the roast. The magazine has been criticized before for having inappropriate and racially offensive subject matter by various groups, however the publication has never backed down.

While satirical magazines are not particularly popular in North America, we do get to see our fair share of satirical movies, which have also recently been under attack. Seth Rogan and James Franco are famous for their satire. They make fun of anything and everything in their movies, most of all themselves. However, when their most recent movie The Interview revolved around the two travelling to  kill Kim Jong-Un, North Korea felt that they had gone too far. North Korea hacked Sony, leaking various emails and documents, and threatened a “9/11 style” attack on any American movie theaters that showed the film. The film was pulled by Sony but was later released in select theaters and online.

These two attacks dealt with completely different subject matter, involved different groups of people and were in different parts of the world. However the primary problem was the same; certain people didn’t like what was being said so they attempted to stop it.

The public responses to both events were overwhelming. Audiences everywhere were suddenly trying to see The Interview, even if they hadn’t had the desire to see it before. Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin even offered to show it in the theatre he owns in Santa Fe and criticized Sony for pulling the film. Shortly after the threats were made, Obama’s end of year press conference was monopolized by questions about North Korea and the cyber attack. In regards to the threats he said; “I think it says something interesting about North Korea that they decided to have the state mount an all-out assault on a movie studio because of a satirical movie starring Seth Rogen and James Flacco” (Obama, Dec. 19/14). James Franco was cool with the fact that Obama messed up his name and he was happy that Obama felt the movie should be released despite North Korea’s threats. Obama went on to say that a dictator half way around the world should not be able to control America.

Many people agreed with Obama’s stance on the issue however some feel that when public safety is concerned it is better to be safe than sorry. That is why Sony initially pulled the film; they didn’t want to put their employees and customers in harms way. The public has debated whether this was a good decision or cowardly, however in the end, the film was released and seen by millions despite it’s rocky release.

The Je Suis Charlie movement is even more widely debated than The Interview. Many are adopting the motto ‘Je Suis Charlie’ as a way of promoting free speech and supporting France and the Charlie Hebdo community. Many celebrities have pledged their support to the cause on social media and most notably at the Golden Globes including George Clooney, Dame Helen Mirren and Jared Leto. Despite the popularity of the movement, there are some criticisms. One of the main arguments being that certain people abuse their right to free speech and negatively affect others as a result.

No matter where you stand on the two events, it is clear that right now is an important and potentially transitional time for free speech. Is free speech always ok even if it potentially doing harm? What implications does free speech have, if any? Should there be more regulations that exist? Does censorship happen already? These are the questions that need to be addressed and unfortunately there are no easy answers.