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We Must Teach Kids That Free Speech Has More Than One Side

01/13/2015 12:33 EST | Updated 03/15/2015 05:59 EDT
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A person holds a sign that reads in French "I am Charlie" during a gathering in solidarity with the victims of recent attacks in France at the French Alliance community center in Quito, Ecuador, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015. People gathered to honor the victims of the shootings at the Paris satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in France. Demonstrations were held Sunday in cities around France and around the world. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

A friend asked me some very difficult questions last week. Should she let her child look at the sex ads in the back of the local free weekly magazine? Should she make sure that her 10-year-old cannot get hold of the magazine? Or should she show the ads so the child can learn from her mother what they are all about?

In the past few days, we have all been talking about freedom of expression and how to think about it. The terrifying events in Paris where 17 people including cartoonists, an editor and journalists, were targeted and murdered because of their work, have created an almost unprecedented focus on the debate about what to publish and what to read. While I deplore the violence and the horror, I welcome the debate.

So much has been written about the cartoons published in the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. There is no doubt that some people found them to be nasty, ugly, racist, and offensive. There is also no doubt that there were other people who believed the cartoons made an important political point. And there is no doubt that among those who had not previously seen the cartoons, there were some who wanted to know what they were about and chose to look at them -- and others who chose not to. The cartoons in question are not difficult to find, if you choose to look for them.

But should main stream print media re-publish them? What if children see the images? What then? Or, alternatively, should we actively show them to our children? Some people were relieved that much of the English language mainstream media in Canada chose not to re-publish the cartoons. They were glad that they did not have to explain the meaning of the anti-Muslim, anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish cartoons to their children. Others were angry that these media did not stand up for freedom of expression by putting the images on their front pages.

Right after the murders took place in Paris, I was speaking about rights and freedoms with a number of grade 10 students. I asked the 14- to 16 year-olds what, if any, limits they thought should be placed on freedom of expression. Many of them thought that language or expression that offended ANYONE should be made illegal.

I pointed at random to one girl and asked the class whose freedom would be limited if this student were banned from letting us know what she was thinking. Many said that only this girl's freedom would be lost. But another student pointed out that if the rest of us did not get to know what her classmate was thinking, we could neither agree nor disagree with her. We could not start a campaign to support her views, nor could we tell her that we found her opinions to be unacceptable.

The young woman declined to tell us what she had been thinking, as was her right. Being free to speak does not mean that we are obliged to speak.

I then asked the class if they would have a problem with my standing in front of them and inviting them to hate a group I found abominable. Would they be concerned if I wanted to tell them about an identifiable group who I believe to be vile and not worthy of anyone's respect? I wasn't planning to use violence or to invite anyone to take violent action against the group -- I just wanted the freedom to let them know how much I hoped they would hate the group I hate. Should I be permitted to do this?

Very few thought that this should ever be permitted. Then I asked if it mattered who I hated. Some said yes and others said it would not matter at all. So I told them that I wanted them to feel, as I do, that neo-Nazi, racist, homophobic skinheads are dangerous and despicable. I pointed out that if I had been forbidden to let them know my negative view of this group, we all might have a very difficult time fighting racism.

Should I have brought the group's hideous propaganda into the class? I don't think it is necessary and I don't want to give such crap (the scientific term) an imprimatur. Should we leave the teenagers to find it on the Internet? Should we encourage them to look for it? Should we ban it?

As always, it depends. If we want our children to live in a democratic society, we had better teach them that freedom of expression has two ends to it. We need the freedom to say what we want, even when offend others. We also need the freedom to see and to hear -- or to walk away from things we do not want to see or to hear. And we need to teach our children to make these difficult choices for themselves.

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