Defining the Line

Where is the line between satire and hate speech?

Who gets to define it? What should be the consequences of crossing it?

One is legal, one is not. The first is often brilliant commentary, the other is just hate.

The massacre — there is no other word for it — at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris has forced editors all around the world to confront the question as they covered the story and chose to either publish the cartoons that were so incendiary to Muslims or not. That choice arose again today as the new issue of Charlie Hebdo hit the stands in France with another apparent depiction of the Prophet Muhammed on the cover.

“Je suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie,” the Prophet says on the cover, beneath the headline “All is forgiven.” The cover was certainly gentler than many of the previously published Charlie Hebdo cartoons satirizing Muslim extremism, but it will doubtless provoke many fundamentalist Muslims nevertheless.

The New York Times, which had declined to publish most of the earlier cartoons, did not print the cover. The Washington Post withheld the inflammatory cartoons from its pages but ran the cover image to illustrate a Paul Farhi story examining the editorial decisions of The Post and others.

The Post’s reasoning, said the newspaper’s executive editor, Martin Baron, was not to publish images that are “deliberately, pointedly, needlessly” offensive.
The Times’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, told the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, that he wrestled with the question of whether to publish the most offensive Charlie Hebdo cartoons, worrying that to do so could expose its foreign correspondents to danger. He ultimately decided against running the cartoons and the cover with the explanation: “We do not normally publish images or other material deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities.”

Meanwhile, several online publications, including The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Gawker and Vox, reproduced a sampling of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, while the television networks and CNN declined to do so.

Different organizations, different decisions.

Among the editors and producers who declined to run the cartoons, the red line seemed to be images that gratuitously, unnecessarily offend. On the other hand, many cartoonists argue that their satire is toothless and even pointless if it does not offend somebody’s sensibilities. The late, great Herb Block argued that his job was to draw blood with his pen, and he often did. Can today’s reader really understand the Charlie Hebdo controversy without seeing the most offensive cartoons?

So, again, where is the line between acceptable satire and unacceptable hate speech? Is it in the eye of the viewer or reader? Was the infamous picture, “Piss Christ,” depicting a plastic crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist Andres Serrano’s urine that caused such a controversy in 1987, over the line? Was it hate when a Danish publication ignited an international furor in 2005 by publishing satirical images of the Prophet?

What is free speech and what is needless provocation? Should religious sensibilities be more protected than racial, ethnic or national feelings?

These are thorny, difficult questions that today’s editors are grappling with this week and will again in the future.

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