‘An Attack on Free Speech’: Student Media Respond to Charlie Hebdo Shootings

Student journalists and student media in the U.S. and Europe have begun responding en masse to the deadly attack in Paris.

The fatal shootings inside the newsroom of the provocative satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent suspect manhunt and hostage situations have attracted global media attention. It has been reported that the shooters were seeking revenge on Charlie Hebdo for its cartoons depicting the Islamic Prophet Muhammad in unflattering poses and sacrilegious situations.

In editorials, interviews and blog posts, student editors have expressed sympathy for the slain magazine staff while simultaneously reflecting on related issues involving freedom of expression, satire, journalist safety and the “predictable backlash against Islam at large.”

“To say the attack was horrific, reprehensible, abhorrent and brutal is true,” The Independent Florida Alligator team at the University of Florida declared in an editorial, “but those words still fail to capture how this feels for us — not to mention what it means to the people of France. … We can only hope that Charlie Hebdo and its satire — which must exist if a liberal, democratic tradition is to continue — are not defeated by this attack.”

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Top editors at The Triangle, the student newspaper at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, similarly stressed the importance of free speech without fear and the sheer lunacy “of fighting a pen with a gun.”

As they contended, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion; it is a human right. What one group finds offensive, another finds humorous, while another is indifferent. We have all been angered by something we read in a newspaper, a Facebook post, or even in a textbook. Even though we are angry and upset, that does not give us the right to justify any wrong by taking the life of another.”

In a larger sense, was Charlie Hebdo justified in publishing the controversial Prophet Muhammad cartoons?

The Mancunion, the student newspaper at UK’s University of Manchester, says yes.

As Mancunion staff argued in an editorial, “No idea, belief or policy should be exempt from criticism or mockery. The Prophet Muhammad is no exception. Once people, particularly us as journalists, start believing that they cannot speak or write about a particular organization or belief, tyranny and stupidity are allowed to flourish.”

Peter Gowan, a student at Ireland’s Trinity College Dublin, respectfully disagrees.

1In an op-ed for Trinity News, Gowan wrote that the current mass sharing of the Muhammad cartoons is unnecessarily inflaming an already combustible situation and further disrespecting the Muslim people.

In his words:

“The caricatures that most people have been sharing from Charlie Hebdo are intentionally designed to offend Muslims. … The cartoons are not something that most tolerant, open-minded people would produce. They are the free expression of people with negative opinions towards the Islamic faith. Charlie Hebdo had every right to mock the Prophet Muhammad, and nobody had a right to murder its journalists or use force to prevent it from doing so. The fact that this right exists, however, does not mean that we ought to express its opinions, and in fact there are many reasons why sharing the caricatures from Charlie Hebdo will have a negative impact on people who may be close to you, and on the overwhelming non-violent majority of Muslims.”

Alligator editors at UF also expressed concern about this negative impact — specifically the “pundits and hatemongers” already using the shootings to blast an entire religion.

As they wrote, “The predictable backlash against Islam at large is not only misguided and simplistic but incredibly disrespectful. … The attack against Charlie Hebdo should be treated [as a singular event]. Pretending otherwise is to prey on ignorance and frustration as well as politically benefit from a tragedy.”

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Amid the horror and spectacle of the tragedy, UCLA student Natalie Delgadillo is reminding the public and the press to not lose sight of the “quieter injustices” plaguing journalists worldwide every day.

As she wrote in a blog post for The Daily Bruin student newspaper, where she works as opinion editor:

“In many ways, what happened at Charlie Hebdo was special, unusual, exceptional. In many more ways, it was part of a predictable and consistent pattern of violence against and restriction of the press. Journalists are killed on a regular basis. Journalists are arrested and unjustly imprisoned even more often. … When we think about the extreme violence of Charlie Hebdo, let’s think about that, too. Let’s think about the 61 journalists that died doing their jobs last year. The ones that are still being imprisoned for doing their jobs. This happens, this is happening. Let’s not proclaim ‘je suis Charlie’ and forget we did it when the sting of this most recent tragedy fades.”

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