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Commentary: Weigh Free Speech Against Other Moral Concerns

Jun 9, 2015

Christopher Meyers

  The horrific killings in January at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine inspired commentators to defend speech and press freedoms as absolutes. But in this edition of FM89's commentary series The Moral Is, CSU Bakersfield  philosophy professor Christopher Meyers says free speech needs to be balanced against other moral concerns. 

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In the wake of January’s shocking murders at Charlie Hebdo’s Paris offices, CBS anchor Scott Pelley departed from his reporter’s stance to provide a brief commentary on the shootings and on press freedom. It was powerful stuff, eloquently written and spoken. Unfortunately it was also seriously misguided.

He was right when he said “there is no democracy without journalism and the strength of a people depends on the quality of their information.” And he correctly showed the connection between a press corps and these basic rights: “Silence,” he noted, “is the end of freedom.”

Where he went wrong was when he concluded that, unlike most of our other cherished freedoms, the freedom to publish and speak is “absolute.

One must assume he was caught up in the horror of the moment: He surely knows that speech, like all freedoms, is qualified against other moral considerations, particularly the harms such speech may cause. In the famous words of Justice Holmes, one does not have the right to “falsely shout fire in a crowded theater.” The Supreme Court has since translated that metaphor into the prevailing standard that speech or publication may be restricted when it represents “a clear and present danger” to the public.

Did the Charlie Hebdo’s actions rise to that standard? Was their decision to publish additional images, despite extremists’ reaction to earlier ones, reckless? Were there credible threats, credible enough that a reasonable person would likely conclude that continued publication represented a clear and present danger? And if so, should they have given in to those threats?

Heroic journalists worldwide face mortal threats every day. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 61 were killed in 2014 simply for doing their job – acquiring and disseminating the information necessary for democracies to prevail. We are in their debt, just as we are to the thousands of others who step into that fray every day.

But what about the accidental victims who do not sign up for that danger? At Charlie Hebdo, those included Frédéric Boisseau, a building maintenance worker, killed in the lobby; Michel Renaud, a friend visiting one of the cartoonists; and Ahmed Merabet, 42, a Paris police officer who rushed to the scene to provide assistance. They were not journalists; they did not commit to the often heroic call to inform the public.

Rather, they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and they died for it. Knowing this changes the equation for me: To my mind, it does not appear Charlie Hebdo’s management adequately addressed just how serious the threat was, particularly to innocent bystanders. It also shows that Pelley’s journalistic absolutism is mistaken – free expression, as vital as it is, must sometimes be weighed against other moral concerns. 

Christopher Meyers is a Professor of Philosophy and Executive Director of the Kegley Institute of Ethics at California State University, Bakersfield. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the University or the Institute or Valley Public Radio. The Moral Is commentary series is produced by KVPR and the Bonner Center for Character Education at Fresno State. See more commentaries online at KVPR.org