Pope Francis and the Limits of Freedom of Expression
Comparative Perspectives on Freedom of Expression 197 (Russell L. Weaver, Steven I. Friedland & Mark D. Cole eds., 2017); ISBN-13: 978-1611637304
23 Pages Posted: 31 Aug 2017
Date Written: August 28, 2017
Prior to the January 2015 terrorist attack on the French publication Charlie Hebdo, Charlie Hebdo had cultivated a reputation for satire of topics such as government, business, and religion. Various Charlie Hebdo depictions of the Muslim prophet Muhammad had been particularly controversial.
The January 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo office came at a time of rising anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe. A poor economy, high unemployment, and ongoing immigration had contributed to this sentiment. The tensions were the greatest in France, which, in early 2015, had as many as six million Muslims and a legacy of colonialism in Algeria, Syria, and North Africa. In the midst of all of this tension, which included discussion over how far freedom of expression in an open society should go, Argentine Pope Francis entered the scene. When a journalist asked Francis about the limits of freedom of expression, the Pope, using an analogy, stated that if a friend of his insulted the Pope’s mother, the friend should expect the Pope to punch him. Apparently thinking that freedom of expression needed robust defense, various voices in the U.S. media promptly critiqued the Pope’s comments.
The Pope’s comments shortly after the attack on Charlie Hebdo presented an opportunity to look at the limits of freedom of expression from another perspective, a religious one. Since religious voices play a role in the public sphere, considering freedom of expression from a religious viewpoint is important. Although somewhat different from a traditional U.S. perspective on the speech that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons constituted, the Pope’s perspective nonetheless was consistent with existing theology of the Catholic Church. To develop such a thesis, this paper proceeds by offering the following: a more detailed and contextualized summary of the papal remarks, an overview of relevant principles of U.S. free speech law and an application of those principles to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and an overview of relevant principles of Catholic theology and an application of those principles to the cartoons. The result should be an improved understanding of an additional perspective on how far freedom of expression in an open society should go.
Keywords: Freedom of Expression, Charlie Hebdo, Islam, Pope Francis, Catholic Church
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