On January 11, as more than a million people marched through the streets of Paris in support of the right to draw cartoons without being murdered, the French Ministry of Culture and Communication declared that "artistic freedom and freedom of expression stand firm and unflinching at the heart of our common European values." It added that "France and her allies in the EU safeguard these values and promote them in the world."
In the wake of the massacre at the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, perpetrated by men who saw death as a fitting punishment for the crime of insulting Islam, these were stirring words. If only they were true. Sadly, France and other European countries continue to legitimize the grievances underlying the barbaric attack on Charlie Hebdo by endorsing the illiberal idea that people have a right not to be offended.
It is true that France does not prescribe the death penalty for publishing cartoons that offend Muslims. But under French law, insulting people based on their religion is a crime punishable by a fine of [euro] 22,500 and six months in jail.
In addition to religion, that law covers insults based on race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, or disability. Defamation (as opposed to mere insult) based on any of those factors is punishable by up to a year in prison, and so is incitement to discrimination, hatred, or violence.
In 2006 the Paris Grand Mosque and the Union of French Islamic Organizations used the ban on religious insults to sue Charlie Hebdo and its editor at the time, Philippe Val, over its publication of three cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, including two that had appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten the previous year. Although Charlie Hebdo won the case and Val escaped prison, the potential for such inquiries inevitably has a chiding effect on freedom of expression.
Since the mid-1980s, French courts have rejected religious-insult complaints against books, movies, movie posters, and written and oral commentary (including novelist Michel Houellebecq's 2001 description of Islam as "the stupidest religion"). They have been more receptive to complaints about a billboard lampooning The Last Supper, a newspaper...