Freedom of Speech and Business: What Charlie Hebdo Taught Us (Again)

by | Jan 16, 2015 | Free Speech

If businesses want to operate successfully, they must stand up for liberty and freedom of speech, in solidarity to those who have been attacked, for their own self-interest.

The horrific murderous attacks by Islamist terrorists on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris have re-ignited the debate on the freedom of speech. There are those—such as David Studer, “journalistic practices and standards” director at the CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster—who argue that freedom of speech must be curtailed so as not to offend anybody, Muslims in particular, and to avoid violent attacks by those who do not like what we have to say. Thankfully, many others—such as National Post columnist Rex Murphy—take the opposite view (read his column here). We must defend freedom of speech, an important element of the right to liberty which is a cornerstone of the Western civilization and of our ability not just to survive but to flourish.

Freedom of speech is also important to business—a fact not immediately obvious and which many of my business students fail to grasp initially. I haven’t had a chance to discuss the heinous killings of the Charlie Hebdo with students yet, but the publishing of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2006 was a parallel case (except the cartoonists were spared and most of the dead and injured were victims of riots mounted in Muslim countries). I have discussed that case many times in class, particularly the Canadian bookstore chain Chapters Indigo’s handling of the few magazines that re-published the Danish cartoons in North-America. CEO Heather Reisman banished them from her stores, citing offensiveness to Muslim customers and the safety risk to her employees and customers in case of potential violent response.

The majority of the students initially agree with Ms. Reisman’s decision to banish the magazine that re=published the Mohammed cartoons. Many typically argue that businesses should not offend anyone, that Heather Reisman was acting with integrity by following her conscience, that she was merely acting in self-interest to protect her employees, customers, and company property. Fortunately, in almost every class there is at least one student who grasp the issue and is able to see the principle of freedom and its importance to business. That student disagrees with Chapters Indigo’s handling of the case, explaining why freedom of speech matters business.

The existence of bookstores, book publishers, magazines and broadcasters—but also of other businesses—depends on the right to liberty and freedom of speech. If these companies have to self-censor (or the government censors them) out of fear of offending someone prone to violence who does not agree with their products, whether cartoons, editorials, books, or movies, their product selection would be very slim indeed. (There is always someone that will be offended, although most of them will react non-violently. But even one injury or death caused by a violent response, such as the Muslim riots after the Danish cartoons or the Islamist terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, is one too many.)

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Business cannot operate and thrive by cowering under the threat of potential violent attacks for perceived offenses. It must uphold its right to liberty and freedom of speech, and therefore it is important for other magazines, newspapers, and newspapers to re-publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. You can see some of them here. This needs to be done in the name of freedom of speech upon which all business depends, regardless whether they agree with the particular cartoons or not. This is what numerous newspapers and magazines in Europe did in response to the violent riots after Jyllands-Posten had published Danish cartoons. They said at the time: “They [referring to the violence-prone Muslims] cannot attack all of us.” Only a handful of North-American publications did the same at that time; many more have done that with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons—for which they should be commended.

As for the very threat to employees and company property, increased security, not self-censorship is the answer. Heather Reisman of Chapters Indigo did not need to pull magazines from the store shelves for the fear of violence, nor was it in her self-interest. (There were some Muslim protesters outside some of the stores, but no violence). She could have hired more security guards, or if necessary, called the police. Charlie Hebdo probably could not afford to hire security, but the police protection it received was inadequate, especially given its offices were firebombed in 2011.

If businesses want to operate successfully, they must stand up for liberty and freedom of speech, in solidarity to those who have been attacked, for their own self-interest. The governments must do a better job of protecting businesses and the rest of us against violent attacks by Islamist terrorists and any other barbarians.

Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada. How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book. Visit her website at profitableandmoral.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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