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Fernando Simón Yarza,,, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Navarra and Visiting Fellow at Princeton University

Charlie Hebdo' and the ambiguity of freedoms

The author argues that, in the wake of the attack on the French magazine and for the sake of social peace, we should reflect on the limits of tolerance.

Tue, 24 Feb 2015 11:57:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

A year before his untimely death in 1918, Professor of Jurisprudence Wesley N Hohfeld completed an ambitious project by publishing in the Yale Law Journal his Fundamental Legal Concepts, one of the greatest contributions to legal analysis of the first half of the twentieth century. With extraordinary analytical precision, Hohfeld dissected in this work the most elementary legal categories. In his classification, he distinguished a law that could be described as "weak" from another that could be described as "strong". The first, which he called "claim right", is the correlate of a duty of another person, for example, the duty not to prevent me from performing a conduct. In this weak sense, it could even be said that I have the "right" to do wrong as long as society has the obligation not to prevent me from doing so. This is, I insist, the simple "reflection" of someone else's duty, a duty that may be due to various reasons. The right in the strong sense -which Hohfeld called "privilege-right", and which is usually also called "liberty-right"- is that which is based on the non-existence of a "duty" of one's own. I have the right to do everything that I have no duty to omit.

As some legal philosophers have pointed out, Hohfeld's analysis is useful both for the speech of legal rights and for the speech -more importantly- of moral rights. And in a moral sense, Charlie Hebdo did not exercise - it must be said plainly and simply - its freedom of expression, since it transgressed the most elementary limits imposed by moral duty. Since there is a moral duty not to insult or blaspheme, to speak of a true moral freedom or a strict moral right to the contrary is repugnant to reason. Abraham Lincoln was well aware of this when, against those who claimed that the problem of the morality of slavery had nothing to do with the right to own slaves, he said lapidarily: "by logic, it cannot be asserted that anyone has the right to do evil".

It is very important to make it clear that Charlie was not exercising a freedom in a moral sense, because the core purpose of the fundamental rights of the Constitution is precisely to protect basic moral freedoms. Charlie Hebdo's freedom constitutes, in his case, the correlate of the "legal duty" of tolerance that our society admits in the penumbras of that constitutional freedom. A residue of tolerance of evil that it would only make sense to accept, by the way, to avoid greater evils. In plain English, Charlie does not rely on his own right, but on a self-imposed legal restriction, for the sake of preserving democracy, to digest his verbal excrements.

All these disquisitions are not mere artifices, but reflections on a discussion which, like almost all political discussion , is often put in rather simplistic terms. It is right to mourn the victims of Charlie Hebdo, because they are victims of fanatical terrorism: je ne suis pas un terroriste! However, we should be a bit more tempted to qualify them as victims of freedom of expression. No, the victims of Charlie's freedom of expression are the holders of the duty of tolerance which is the basis of this freedom: mainly - but not only - Christians and Muslims attacked by their verbal violence, and attacked in the One they love the most. Possibly they should be relieved a little of a legal burden based on a reason, to avoid greater evils, which has obviously faltered. Just as the absolute state threatens freedom, the state of nature and "anything goes" also threaten social peace.

Beyond the prudential conclusions of each one, I believe that the terms of the discussion have been well stated. The Paris attacks certainly call for reflection, but reflection cannot consist - as many expressions of solidarity suggest - in "victimizing" Charlie Hebdo's exercise of freedom of expression. The transition from tolerance to moral legitimization of scorn and blasphemy is repugnant and dangerous: on the one hand, it degrades society; on the other hand, it means blessing, to paraphrase Clausewitz, the continuation of war by other means. No, the real reflection must consist in rethinking the social consequences of the abuse of words, consequences that an excessive faith in the capacity of speech - whatever its content - to produce the moral has kept hidden from us for a long time. Do we really have to legally accept the most blatant verbal offenses in order not to fall into the oppressive state? Perhaps social peace itself is demanding that the limits of tolerance be reviewed.