Is There a Limit to Freedom of Speech?

by audreynoiseux on September 12, 2016 - 11:44pm

On August 24 2016, an earthquake killed 295 people and injured almost 400 in the city of Amatrice, in Italy. On the morning after, Charlie Hebdo, a newspaper recognized for its controversial humor about events of actuality, published a cartoon depicting the victims of the earthquake as different types of pasta, showing a bleeding man labelled ‘’Penne with tomato sauce’’, another one, severely bruised or burned, labelled ‘’Penne au gratin’’ and a pile of victims under a collapsed building, their legs and blood coming out of the rubbles, labelled as ‘’Lasagna’’.


In January 2015, the whole western world was supporting Charlie Hebdo, victim of a terrorist attack by Islamist terrorists, in reaction of a cartoon made by the newspaper about the prophet Mahomet, where twelve people were killed. From this event was created the expression ‘‘Je suis Charlie’’, a symbol of freedom of speech. 


A new expression is currently used by many on social media ‘’ I’m no longer Charlie’’. The Italians are deeply shocked by the cartoon made about them. Sergio Pirozzi, the Amatrice’s mayor, said ‘’ How the f__ do you draw a cartoon about the dead!’’. Furthermore, the French embassy in Rome defended that the caricature did not represent the France’s position. 


In respond to the controversy, Charlie Hebdo published another cartoon about the earthquake where there can be read ‘’Italians, it’s not Charlie Hebdo who has built your homes, it’s the mafia!’’, referring to the presence of organized crime in the construction companies in Italy. That just added fuel to the fire. The municipality of Amatrice decided to sue the newspaper for aggravated defamation.


This event relates to the moral claim ‘’ People should not be used as a mean to an end’’. In this case, the victims of the earthquake have, in a certain way, been used by the newspaper to attract public attention. Considering that the satire is about people who were killed by nature, thus who were completely innocent, it is seen as very harsh to use them in a caricature. The main value defended by Charlie Hebdo is the freedom of speech. Considering that the newspaper’s goal is to provoke, to say things that are sometimes hard to hear but must be heard, to make people laugh or to make them angry, and has always been that way, they are presently simply defending their ideas, which are the same that on January 2015. On the other hand, many people believe that this time, they went too far. They express compassion for the victims and their families. Furthermore, the accusations made by the newspaper regarding to the organized crime among the construction companies upset deeply the municipality of Amatrice, already deeply shocked by the first cartoon about the earthquake, who claims that there is defamation and sues Charlie Hebdo, defending their integrity.


Even if I can understand that it must be hard for the victims’ family to see such a cartoon while  they are going through very difficult times, I believe that we cannot only make fun of others. It was fair enough for everyone when the newspaper, exercising its freedom of expression, was publishing caricature about muslims, because there is already a lot of islamophobia in the western world. On the other hand, I think it is very fair from Charlie Hebdo to do a satire against Europeans as well. Of course it will provoke people, but isn’t it the goal of a satire? It creates reactions. Sometimes we might be the ones laughing, sometimes we might be the ones others are laughing at. Is there a limit to freedom of speech? If so, can we still defend it and claim that we want to protect it?




Reuters. ‘'Charlie Hebdo draws Italian anger with cartoon portraying earthquake victims as pasta.’’ The Telegraph, 2 Sept. 2016, Accessed 12 September 2016.


Boyle, Darren. ‘’Charlie Hebdo is sued by Italian town for mocking earthquake that left 300 dead with cartoon comparing its crushed victims to lasagne.’’ Mail Online, 12 Sept. 2016, Accessed 12 September 2016.


I remember hearing about the Charlie Hebdo incidents in the media, but never really took the time to find out what actually happened, and reading your article opened my eyes.

I agree wholly with your position that it was fair for the newspaper company to make any comics they want and you do bring up a good point about us laughing on the one hand, but being laughed at on the other. I am a big supporter of freedom of speech and belief as well as autonomy. In consequence, I believe that Charlie Hebdo weren't in the wrong to make such comics. In fact, as long as it doesn't leave a damaging scar on people, they should be entitled to do what they want.

While I don't think Charlie Hebdo needs to apologize, I wonder, what can be done to ease the heart of the victims' families?

Your article is very clear, your ideas are well explained and your text is well structured. However, I strongly disagree with one of your ideas. You wrote: "it was fair enough for everyone when the newspaper, exercising its freedom of expression, was publishing caricature about Muslims, because there is already a lot of islamophobia in the western world." I do not think that the presence of islamophobia is a good enough reason for the journal to make fun of Muslims. Also, I do not think that people should be treated differently in this journal. I think that treating the case of Islamic caricatures as less serious than the Italian case is encouraging people to display islamophobia and giving it a free pass. I think that this way of thinking has become customary in western culture, because people confuse Muslims and Islamic extremists. Also, concerning the journal in itself, I agree that they should have complete freedom of speech. I simply believe that the reaction from the population should be the same no matter who the journal is making fun of. Ultimately, their goal is to have people talking about them, no matter if what they say are good or bad things. Is the Italian response to the journal’s caricature an overreaction or is it completely legitimate?

It reveals a debate about Charlie Hebdo and their controversial caricatures about Muslims, Italians and an earthquake who shocked many people. Charles Hebdo defended itself by saying that is a question about freedom of speech. However, making a caricature on the victims of a terrible earthquake is related to the moral claim: ‘’People should not be used as a mean to an end’’. In this case, victims were used to crave public attention by the newspaper. You did a great job on defending your point and it was convincing. Your title influenced me so much to read your article; I wanted to know what you were going to talk and I wanted to know your opinion about this debate. I found this ethical very interesting because it is really hard to decide which side I should take in favor. I understand that freedom of speech is truly important but what is the limit? I think of the big ethical issue with Mike Ward and the little Jeremy. If the purpose of a caricature or a comment is to make fun of a person, maybe it is not appropriate to say these things. It could be harmful and one of my biggest values is being respectful so I don’t think that it was necessary to make a caricature on such a tragedy. However, I’m not saying that we should never say our opinions, I’m just saying that we must pay attention to not hurt anybody with our comments. Was Muslims response to caricature of Charlie Hebdo legitimate or an act of terrorist due of an overreaction?
Great job for your article!

About the author

I recently took a year off to travel and volunteer, since then, my perspective of the world completely changed and so did I. I feel that I can now adapt to almost any situation, I enjoy meeting new people and am very easy going.