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Kevin Cullen

French attacks bring doubts on US free speech

French cartoons were shown during an event Saturday at the French Cultural Center in Boston.
French cartoons were shown during an event Saturday at the French Cultural Center in Boston.Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

They opened the ballroom Saturday afternoon at what old-timers in the Back Bay still call the French Public Library, so Bostonians could gather and commiserate with the French among us.

It was a nice, simple gesture, opening the stately mansion on the corner of Marlborough and Berkeley for ordinary folks to mourn the dead in Paris.

That the French Cultural Center, which houses the library, would be located in a Victorian building, in a city settled by the English, is a poignant reminder that old enemies can become friends who deeply appreciate each other’s culture.

There is no doubt that Bostonians, in particular, can identify with a people so grievously hurt by a pair of brothers whose adherence to a murderous ideology led them to kill without compunction, who could shoot a defenseless police officer, who could wrap their justification for killing the innocent in, of all things, a religion.

In the days after the acrid smoke rose above Boylston Street at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, the editors of Le Monde, one of France’s great newspapers, marveled at the first responders like Firefighter Benny Upton and ordinary civilians like Carlos Arredondo who ran to the sides of the wounded, the runners like Rob Wheeler who peeled the shirt off his back to tie off the leg of a guy bleeding out on the sidewalk, the other runners who, after being stopped from finishing the marathon, raced to nearby hospitals to donate blood.


“In the face of chaos,” said Le Monde, “came charity.”

It was Le Monde, too, that famously observed after 9/11 that “Nous sommes tous Americains,” that everybody was an American after Al Qaeda attacked the United States.

In the hours after some Al Qaeda-inspired, if not trained, adherents attacked the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, a variation of the Le Monde sentiment, Je
suis Charlie — I am Charlie — became a social media sensation, all over the world and here in Boston.


Je suis Charlie is an understandable and admirable reaction to the savagery in Paris. But I wonder how much truth there is in it. I wonder how many newspapers would print the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed that made the people who produced Charlie Hebdo a target. I wonder how many people around our parts, or anywhere in America, really believe in and would defend, with their lives if necessary, the concept of free speech.

Many of us are not Charlie. People who you think would know better, some of the best educated among us, believe less in the concept of free speech, especially offensive speech, than in the idea that you have the right not to be offended.

Most depressing is that many who embody the antithesis to the spirit behind Je suis Charlie are in the academy, in higher education, in some of the best American colleges and universities, including right here in and around Boston. It is precisely in the places where robust free speech would be most expected that it is institutionally censored and punished.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, just surveyed 437 colleges and universities and found that more than 55 percent have codes that substantially prohibit speech protected by the First Amendment. In 2013, it was 58.6 percent.


So the good news, I guess, is that according to FIRE’s research this is the seventh year in a row that the percentage of schools who maintain speech codes has declined. The bad news is we’re still talking about more than half of the institutions of higher education in this country being highly censorious, and that the chilling effect on free speech can leave people of supposed intellect accusing people like Wendy Kaminer of being a racist.

Last fall, Kaminer, a Boston-based lawyer and social critic of some renown, took part in a panel discussion about free speech and censorship sponsored by her alma mater, Smith College. While explaining her opposition to censored speech, Kaminer noted the absurdity of euphemisms such as the phrase “the N word.” She said that when people hear it “the N word,” they fully know what is being said. And then, to underscore her point, she said the dreaded N word.

“There, I said it, and nothing terrible happened,” Kaminer said.

Heads exploded. Letters were written. Someone at the Huffington Post suggested Kaminer had engaged in “an explicit act of racial violence.”

Like the editors at Charlie Hedbo, who routinely used their newspaper to satirize and ridicule racists, Wendy Kaminer has no truck with racists, but she was accused of being one for having the temerity to talk about a word.

“I was trying to explain the difference between hurling an epithet, which is obviously wrong, and talking about a word, which is not,” said Kaminer.


The student newspaper at Smith ran a story about all this, based on a transcript of the panel discussion prepared by a student who attended it. The transcript contained “trigger warnings,” a disclaimer big on campuses that tells you that what you are about to read might contain something that offends or even, in the words of supporters of such nonsense, traumatizes you.

The transcript notes that when Kathleen McCartney, the president of Smith College who moderated the panel discussion, talked about the fine surroundings of the Smith College Club in New York City, she said, obviously in jest, “We’re just wild and crazy, aren’t we?”

Except the word crazy was censored from the transcript, replaced with the term “ableist slur.”

So some of us are Charlie.

A lot of us, including some of the most educated and those paying the most for education in the world, are not.

Vive la difference.

Vive la France.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.