“Cartoons do not kill people. Humorless fanatics do.”

That’s what Signe Wilkinson, editorial cartoonist for the Philadelphia Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer, said of the Jan. 7 bloodbath in Paris that occurred after French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad. Eleven journalists and one police officer were killed by Islamic gunmen, who later attacked a kosher supermarket.

Wilkinson was among the panelists for the recent Chancellor’s Forum on the Charlie Hebdo attack and free speech, presented by the International Law Committee. Other panelists were Mark C. Rahdert, professor of law at the Temple University Beasley School of Law; Mary Catherine Roper, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union; and Ryan Tack-Hooper, staff attorney at the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The event was held at the offices of Pepper Hamilton LLP.

Moderator and Pepper Hamilton partner Amy B. Ginensky offered a brief historical perspective to open the program. She said the Jan. 7 attack was not the first targeting the magazine, which was firebombed in 2011 after publishing cartoons of Muhammad. Following the January attack, millions took to the streets in Paris in support of the magazine and the murdered journalists. The magazine published its next edition shortly after the attack. Ginensky said there was more violence in Niger, Pakistan and Denmark.

Wilkinson explained that violent reactions depended upon on how these images are interpreted. “Who gets to say whether an image is favorable or unfavorable?” she asked. Panelists said the political and social climate in which these images were presented affects the perception of the image. In a place where democracy is limited and economic conditions are poor, the anger about perceived offensive material may be more palpable and easy to incite. In the United States, we have free speech protections. We do not have the same restrictions as in Europe and other countries. Essentially, we are used to offensive material because that is part of the protection we enjoy.

Tack-Hooper talked about the Islamic perspective on the tragedy. The history of Islam aligns the church and state closely. Hooper presented two separate issues, the antipathy toward blasphemy and the violent response. “Blasphemy is akin to flag burning. There is anger with a perceived attack on identity and it can be viewed as treason. Religious identity is paramount.”

Hooper said that leading theological authorities advise that the correct response to blasphemy is to ignore it. Violence is universally condemned. Hooper does not necessarily view this as a West/East issue. The political and social construct affect perception of the images.

In the United States, Charlie Hebdo enjoys freedom of speech protections. Professor Rahdert said this was not always the case. “Today we have a thick web of constitutional decisions that this publication enjoys.” When Radhert compared the U.S. Constitutions to those in Europe, he said Europe is much more complicated. He said the Council of Europe and European Union are committed to protecting fundamental rights, even protecting human dignity. States can regulate freedom of expression. There is a balancing act of the cultural, linguistic and religious minority. Many nations have blasphemy statutes. However, this protectionism of expression does not seem to stop violence.

“Violence is intended to stop a conversation rather than start a conversation. We should not be afraid of controversy,” Roper said. She spoke about her work for the ACLU and focused on continued efforts to give people the right to speak, including recent litigation to strike down a blasphemy statue in Pennsylvania, defending the right of an immigrant to wear the flag of the Palestinian authority, and the right of someone to hang the flag upside down. The ACLU is constantly defending the right to speak on religious grounds, particularly for the religious minority or political grounds.

Maureen M. Farrell ([email protected]), principal in The Law Offices o Maureen M. Farrell, is an associate editor of
the Philadelphia Bar Reporter.

This article originally appeared in Philadelphia Bar Reporter, April 2015.