The Charlie Hebdo principle: A reply

One of the writers, Francine Prose, a former PEN President,  who decided to withdraw from the gala in protest, was reported as saying that giving an award signified ‘admiration and respect’ for the winner’s work. ‘I couldn’t imagine being in the audience when they have a standing ovation for Charlie Hebdo.’ But Charlie Hebdo is in fact being recognised for its courage: the courage to publish in the face of threats and intimidation, and the courage to continue publishing after the shocking murders in January.

We are more used to seeing that courage at a greater distance – in Mexico, Russia, Bangladesh or Egypt – and feel safe celebrating writers and journalists who may be prosecuted for outraging public morals in their own culture…

Most of the great free speech battles in history have been fought over issues that were not deemed deserving of defence. The subjects of the famous obscenity prosecutions of the 70s in the UK (the Oz trial or Linda Lovelace’s memoir) were seen as publications of no merit. But what was at stake, as in the case of Charlie Hebdo, was the principle: the freedom to publish and the freedom to write. A freedom on which all writers depend. Victory in court (in the face of moral outrage) led to greater freedom for publishers and writers. In one of his last interviews, the writer and barrister John Mortimer, who famously defended both the Oz and the Lovelace trials, spoke of the retreat from ‘the abiding principle … that you lived in a country where you could read anything you like’. The growth of the idea that we should at all costs avoid causing offence (and that this may be even more important than defending the right to free speech) continues to undermine that principled protection for freedom of expression.