So there is a very interesting conversation that has come up in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre about whether the cartoons penned by and published in the magazine were somehow crossing over the line into racism and islamophobia. It’s a question that I don’t have the answer to.
First of all, let’s acknowledge the obvious, that even if the cartoons did cross the line, that’s obviously not a justification for murder.
That being said, several commentators have made the valid point that if someone were to print a cartoon depicting black people as monkeys, there would be a lot of social outrage (although that would not necessarily be illegal). A similar argument can apparently be made about some of the cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo. So, I don’t read French, and I haven’t done a survey of the cartoons, but what I did see and hear about did seem a little unnecessarily provocative. Even though, as I understand it, the French have a history of publishing especially provocative cartoons.
French freedom of speech is not unlimited, however. Even the French don’t allow people to advocate holocaust denial, for example.
In the United States, the situation is complex. Although freedom of speech is not unlimited here either, the Supreme Court has essentially protected hate speech except where it creates an “imminent danger” by inciting others to proximate violence.