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How sincere is 'Je suis Charlie'?

Attendees hold "Je Suis Charlie" (I am Charlie)

Attendees hold "Je Suis Charlie" (I am Charlie) signs as several hundred people gather in solidarity after two terrorist attacks in Paris, one at the office of weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo and another at a kosher market, in New York's Washington Square Park, Saturday, Jan. 10, 2015. Credit: AP

The horrific attack on the Paris office of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo last week, when 12 people were shot dead in revenge against the magazine's irreverent cartoons of Muhammad, has led to a massive international outpouring of support for freedom of speech. "Je suis Charlie" -- "I am Charlie" -- is the new battle cry for those defending the right to speak, write and draw without fear of retaliation for expression that offends some people's sensibilities.

Yet not everyone is cheering for the campaign. Some, such as culture critic Arthur Chu in The Daily Beast and attorney-journalist Glenn Greenwald in The Intercept, say that it celebrates Muslim-bashing and that one can oppose killing without embracing bigoted speech. Others, such as New York Times columnist David Brooks and Reason editor Nick Gillespie, say the outrage is disingenuous, since most of the Charlie wannabes are doing little to resist the encroachment of less violent speech suppression. In Europe and Canada, there are laws criminalizing hate speech, often broadly defined. In the United States, people expressing ideas deemed offensive may find their careers damaged if not destroyed, especially in academia.

What, then, is the right way to handle controversial speech, beyond the general agreement that people should not be killed for it? Legally, the modern principles of American constitutional law offer a sound solution: Speech, no matter how odious, is protected with a few narrow exceptions such as threats of violence. But should people who express offensive ideas also be protected from unpleasant social consequences? Not only is such untrammeled freedom impossible, it is also a principle virtually no one embraces consistently.

Greenwald and others are right when they point out that we would not be expressing solidarity with cartoonists who trafficked in ugly stereotypes of Jews or blacks (though wrong to equate Charlie Hebdo's equal-opportunity mockery of religious pieties with such bigotry). While we would not support a homicidal attack on a neo-Nazi magazine, we would probably not mourn it very deeply.

A number of recent scandals have focused on people being disinvited from campus events, denied access to media platforms or fired from their jobs for expressing controversial views, such as criticizing Islam, denouncing Israel, or disagreeing with same-sex marriage. Yet very few would rally to the defense of provocative speakers who had praised Adolf Hitler, championed white supremacy or advocated sex with children.

Sometimes, free speech controversies involve conflicting claims of speech suppression. Late last year, Brandeis University junior Khadijah Lynch resigned as undergraduate representative for the school's African and Afro-American Studies Department after an uproar over her tweets asserting that she had "no sympathy" for the two police officers shot dead in New York City.

Daniel Mael, the Brandeis student who exposed the tweets on a conservative website, has been denounced as a racist by many campus leftists, with some calling for his expulsion. Which one is being oppressed for exercising the right to free speech: Mael? Lynch? Both?

To protect offensive speech from social backlash would require restricting other people's speech -- the freedom to criticize and even ostracize ideas one finds repugnant -- as well as freedom of association for private individuals, including business owners. But the right to declare certain ideas beyond the social pale should be exercised very carefully and sparingly so that we don't impoverish vital public debate. When in doubt, it is always better to err on the side of more speech.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.