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The difference between free speech and hate speech
In the wake of the shooting in Garland, Texas, the line that divides protected free speech and hate speech seem as blurry as ever. - photo by JJ Feinauer
The satirical minds behind the controversial French weekly Charlie Hebdo received a standing ovation on Tuesday as they accepted the PEN American Centers Toni and James C Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, despite protests claiming that the magazine "violates the acceptable."

The magazine was attacked earlier this year by Islamic extremists who killed 12 at the magazine's headquarters, including five cartoonists. Charlie Hebdo specialized in satirizing religious figures, particularly Islam's Prophet Muhammad, which has led some to question whether the attack was unnecessarily provoked.

Similar sentiments have swirled in the wake of last week's attack on the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest in Garland, Texas. In that attack, Islamic terrorists (which ISIS claim as its own) failed to hurt anyone, but the debate over the limits of freedom of expression have resurfaced.

"What sorts of speech are worth defending is, for most believers in free expression, obvious its all of them!" Time magazine's Daniel DAddario wrote Wednesday. But as D'Addario points out, defending something and celebrating it are two different things, and "what sorts of speech are worth valorizing is a much more complicated matter one that had been difficult to confront in a flurry of earnest sympathy for slain writers."

After the attack on Charlie Hebdo, much of the media was weary of criticizing the French satirists for their provocative material, lest they fall into the trap of excusing the restriction of speech.

"The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism," New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait wrote shortly after the attack. "One cannot defend the right without defending the practice."

Other media personalities expressed similar concerns. Hari Kunzru, for example, argued in The Guardian that focusing on whether or not the content of Hebdo's pages goes too far is just conceding to the goals of the terrorists.

"The attack on Charlie Hebdo was, of course, intended to raise the price on the exercise of freedom of speech," he wrote. "It was intended to cast the shadow of the guillotine over every editorial conference, every pitch, every keyboard and pen. It was meant to make us think twice. This much we understand. And its working."

But there were also those who thought it unwise to discuss Hebdo without tackling the content that many have found offensive. In the wake of the attack in Garland, that discussion has only intensified.

"There is no question that images ridiculing religion, however offensive they may be to believers, qualify as protected free speech in the United States and most Western democracies," a New York Times editorial that ran Wednesday said. "But it is equally clear that the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest in Garland, Tex., was not really about free speech. It was an exercise in bigotry and hatred posing as a blow for freedom."

According to the Times, it's the motivations that count most, and while the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo sought to satirize oppressive forces through cartoons that may or may not have crossed the line, the event in Garland was orchestrated to inflict "deliberate anguish on millions of devout Muslims who have nothing to do with terrorism."

The New Republic's Jeet Heer sees things a little bit differently. He concedes that the event was nothing more than bigoted provocation, as the Times editorial does, and that the event's organizer, Pamela Geller, is "a notorious Islamaphobic hatemonger." But he believes that it's because of the clarity in these distinctions that the event in Garland is a prime example of why free speech needs protection, and why it will always be hard to accept.

"In the wake of Hebdo and Texas, the question becomes: Do we give al-Qaida and ISIS what they want, this opposition between Muslims and non-Muslims?" Jeer asked. "Pamela Geller deserves full free-speech protection, and yet she's promoting the very polarization that radical jihadi groups are so eagerly working for through their violence."
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