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Thursday 8 January 2015, David Bowden

Charlie Hebdo: why we need the right to be offensive

The massacre in Paris is a powerful reminder of the need to defend free speech at all times.

The tragic events in Paris yesterday, where journalists from satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were targeted by gunmen seemingly motivated by its blasphemous cartoons, has provoked shock and revulsion around the world. Many journalists and campaigners have defiantly rallied around the magazine, rightly seeing the act not just as cold-blooded murder, but as an attack on Western ideals of free speech and expression. The German newspaper BZ responded by republishing Charlie Hebdo’s seemingly offensive covers on its front page; other journalists and cartoonists have provided their own ripostes.

Yet the reaction is far from unanimous. In a much-criticised article in the immediate aftermath, the Financial Times’s Tony Barber seemed to suggest that Charlie Hebdo had demonstrated ‘editorial foolishness’ for its ‘Muslim-baiting’); others have qualified their condemnations with reference to the magazine’s offensive content and the high levels of tension in a country where the far-right Front National has made considerable electoral ground recently. Some noted that when Charlie Hebdo’s offices were firebombed back in 2011, there was much less willingness to defend its particularly abrasive form of satire, as evidenced by TIME’s original response.

The Institute of Ideas is proud to stand for ‘free speech with no ifs or buts’ and the Battle of Ideas’ motto is unashamedly ‘Free speech allowed!’. In 2011, one of the festival keynote debates focused on the question of tolerance and how far free societies should go in tolerating offensive and inflammatory speech or ideas. In ‘Has tolerance gone too far?’, a panel featuring Hungarian dissident Gaspar Miklos Tamas, journalist Christopher Caldwell, political philosopher Anna Elisabetta Galeotti and sociologist Frank Furedi discussed how tolerance became an essential value to the Enlightenment – and whether modern Western societies continue to uphold it. It remains vital viewing today - watch it here.

Battle of Ideas speakers have also written two articles that are essential reading in response to the tragedy: Brendan O’Neill writing in spiked and Bill Durodié, chair of international relations at the University of Bath, writing for The Conversation.

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