THE BLOG
01/20/2015 03:38 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

Je Suis Charlie -- Or Perhaps Not?

Most of us human beings, whatever our philosophical, educational or religious backgrounds, like to know clearly what is right and wrong. So it was simple for people around the world to recognize that the brutal murders last week in Paris were evil and wrong: Absolutely.

But not all related to the tragedy is so clear: In public and social media, as well as within private conversations, reactions to the violence of terrorism have muddied discussions of free speech. Many of us trained in Western law traditions and devoted to the ideals of human rights, chimed in immediately with "Je suis Charlie" and defended the rights and contributions of political cartoonists and satirists. I have spent decades believing in and working to protect the right to free speech; and have studied and valued both the U.S. Bill of Rights and international human rights laws that include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As a professional, I have worked to ensure that they are used to protect free speech. It was therefore easy to join those who quickly and absolutely defended the free speech rights of those so wrongfully attacked in France.

Yet as human beings we have the ability to recognize complexity -- and then to struggle to understand it. At the same time that we feel the moral certainty that the killings were wrong, we ought to sense some legal ambiguity regarding free speech. Although grief and horror may make it hard to question whether all cartoons and satire by Charlie Hebdo should be regarded as protected speech, now is the time to engage the debate:

Do we, as a global community, really want to see all speech defended absolutely? In the U.S., we learn that there is not a right to yell "fire" in a crowded theater (when there is no fire), because that speech can cause panic and result in harm. Should we not therefore question a right to publish cartoons that have consistently generated anger and resulted in harm?

In fact, international law does anticipate such questions: Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.

Yet while the corresponding Article 19 of the Covenant reiterates that right, it also qualifies it: allowing it may be "subject to certain restrictions," if necessary "For respect of the rights or reputations of others."

To reiterate: there is absolutely no justification for murdering anyone, no matter what they say, write or draw. But in the wake of the latest heinous murders relating to Islam, and in no way suggesting that we allow violence to silence legitimate speech, it is time to use reason and law to set some limits on speech that shows disrespect for others and attacks their beliefs and their dignity.

Time and again many moderate voices of Islam -- not those who advocate or instigate violence -- have decried cartoons that purposefully insult Muslims and their faith. To their credit, some media have made a point of featuring their perspectives. Yet even as experts, scholars and other Muslim representatives have patiently sought to explain, and have urged the Judeo-Christian world to hear and understand them, there has been a generalized reluctance to take their objections seriously.

The basic question is simple: What is the value of protecting hurtful speech? In contrast, there are reasons for protecting citizens' speech in relation to their governments: to expose corruption, demagoguery and persecution of its own people. Examples include speech and assembly in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Maidan Square in Kiev, Tiannamen Square in Beijing and Occupy Central in Hong Kong. Most Muslims around the world would agree wholeheartedly to such protections.

When it comes to speech that denigrates culture or religion, however, there are many instances in the West of constraining or silencing hurtful speech, such as expressions of racism, anti-Semitism or bigotry. Do we not already take actions to stop speech that insults and belittles people's dignity, such as people with physical disabilities or homosexuals? As a Jewish woman, I vigorously decry depictions of Jews as cheap money-hoarders. Having worked to promote gender equality and women's rights, I deplore pictures that objectify and commodify women's bodies. Basic empathy ought to lead us to condemn those who attack the dignity of Muslims.

The danger is that we may reify and defend free speech in absolutist terms, but apply that protection with a double-standard: If certain restrictions are permitted "for the respect of the rights or reputations of others," then such restrictions should apply to upholding the dignity of Muslims, West Africans and Arabs.

Whether a matter of law or morality, those who rightly condemn the murders in France can, and should, also condemn the use of biting humor that perpetuates negative stereotypes, promotes dehumanizing attitudes, and undermines respect. Recognizing that the media worldwide have been subject to increasing constraints, and that repressive governments would be glad for additional tools for silencing critics, any legal restrictions would have to be narrowly defined. Best would be for those who engage in mockery to focus on the political, and to refrain from "picking on" people who may already be vulnerable to biases or suspicions because they are somehow outside the majority or mainstream.

It would be simpler if all speech were allowable, anytime and anywhere. But it is more complicated than that: It is time to ensure that protecting rights and reputations applies impartially to people of all races and religions.