Best defense of free speech: individual dignity

Sunday's huge rally in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo murders helps reassert the intrinsic worth of each person, no matter what kind of offending cartoons he or she may draw.

AP Photo
French President Francois Hollande, second from left, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, join other dignitaries during a giant rally in Paris Jan. 11. More than 40 world leaders marched for freedom of expression and to honor 17 victims of three days of terrorist attacks.

Nearly three million rallied in France on Sunday, standing up for freedom of expression and against last week’s attacks on the cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper. Dozens of world leaders joined them. The event marked a global assertion not only for free speech but the deeper value that lies behind it – the intrinsic worth of each individual, no matter their views.

The crowds in France were nearly as large as those after the Allied liberation of Paris in 1945. This shows just how many people today seek to preserve the idea that dignity is inherent in everyone – simply as created beings. Their dignity transcends their social or material circumstances, even their intelligence and morality. It is, in fact, so fundamental that after World War II, all countries joined in signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations that states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

The terrorist murders in Paris came after similar threats or attacks on others whose expressions were deemed offensive by certain groups. Last year, North Korea hacked computers at Sony for making the movie “The Interview.” The Taliban shot Pakistani girl-activist Malala Yousafzai. A Dutch filmmaker was assassinated for a movie about Muslim women. And perhaps the wake-up call for such threats was Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie for the novel “The Satanic Verses.”

Many governments put limits on free expression, of course, but leaders in a democracy are especially careful to limit speech only to cases of obvious harm to an individual, such as libel or threats of violence. Every society must grapple with free speech, an issue that involves protecting minorities and their views.

Courts in free countries generally recognize that guarding the inherent dignity of an individual helps engender a better regard for the dignity of others. Or as US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy put it in a recent talk: “Most people know in their innermost being that they have dignity and that this imposes upon others the duty of respect.”

The legal and political struggles over free speech are often a struggle to define dignity. At its core, dignity is defined from within, the expression of qualities we call good, rather than a person’s actions as measured against external standards. Beyond that, some people define dignity as something given from outside, such as respect or an improved material life. But those depend on the judgment of others or a consensus by society.

The killers in Paris took violence into their own hands to avenge a perceived assault by the Charlie Hebdo cartoons on the dignity of their religion, Islam. Yet Islam, like Christianity and other major faiths, teaches the inherent worth of the individual in the eyes of God. Spiritual integrity cannot be harmed by outside expression. The cartoons need not be dignified but the cartoonists did have a dignity deserving sanctity for their lives.

The rally in Paris was a message to all those who may believe their dignity can be diminished – by even a silly artistic expression, be it a drawing or a film. Your worth is a given.

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