Muslim extremists have initiated a new reign of terror in France and freedom lovers worldwide are rightly outraged. Millions gathered in Paris and other French cities Sunday chanting, "Je suis Charlie!" ("I am Charlie"), proclaiming solidarity with the satirical magazine where 10 staff were murdered. Western journalists, too, universally condemned this latest attempt to suppress free speech and defiantly vowed not to cower to violence and intimidation.
David Rothkopf at Foreign Policy staunchly encouraged his colleagues not to self-censor. "(T)here are forces afoot in the world that seek to enforce their version of political, cultural, and ideological correctness at gunpoint," Rothkopf wrote. "Allowing these forces to gain any traction in the wake of such threats . . . cedes them small, corrosive and dangerous victories."
Even those who said they found Charlie Hebdo's cartoons offensive or racist, defended the magazine's right to publish freely. "If speech rights only protected polite comments that everyone could agree with," writes James Poniewozik in Time, "we wouldn't need them." Similarly, Matt Yglesias at Vox wrote: "The legal right to free speech requires that people's right to speak freely be respected legally. That means no legal sanction for publishing racist cartoons . . . and it means that the law must protect you from acts of retaliatory violence."
Ironically though, none of these righteously indignant journalists wrote anything to support another victim of strong-arm speech suppression last week. Granted, this victim was spared his life. Yet, Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran was stripped of his livelihood and a career that had been his passion for more than three decades. Why? He dared to write in a devotional book that homosexuality is a "perversion" and that homosexual acts are "vile, vulgar and inappropriate."
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who fired Cochran for his comments about homosexuality, maintained that his actions had nothing to do with abridging freedom. "This is not about free speech," he said. "Judgment is the basis of the problem."
Reed then criticized Cochran for failing to get approval for his book's publication and for commenting publicly after being instructed not to. In other words, Reed is fine with employees expressing their opinions; they just need Reed to approve them first. Right, this isn't about free speech at all.
Similarly, The New York Times Editorial Board, which should have been outraged, tried to paint Reed's action as simply protecting a safe work environment. "This case is not about free speech or religious freedom," the board wrote. Rather, it's about making sure that government is a place where, as Reed put it, "everyone, no matter who(m) they love, can come to work . . . without fear of being discriminated against."
I suppose now that any government employee who criticizes Islam on his free time can also be dismissed because Muslims will feel unsafe at work. What about those who express opposition to abortion? How will co-workers who are pro-choice or post-abortive feel? Or, what about those with strong sentiments against illegal immigration? Will they make immigrants feel threatened?
Few would argue with Cochran's dismissal had he actually done something at work to make his gay colleagues feel uncomfortable. But, by all counts, Cochran was kind and gracious to all his co-workers and never discriminated against anyone. Apparently though, actual discrimination or harassment is no longer required as grounds for dismissal. Simply expressing offending views on one's private time is grounds enough. This is chilling. Regardless of what Mayor Reed and the New York Times Editorial Board say, this is precisely what freedom of speech is about.
Our founders added the First Amendment to protect individuals from this very thing – from having to conform to the views of the reigning majority. Or, to quote journalist Matt Yglesias, our laws are there to protect citizens "from acts of retaliatory violence." But, if special interest groups can get government officials to fire every employee who disagrees with their platform, then we no longer have a free democratic society; we have fascist one. And, people no longer will feel freedom to express their opinions openly. They'll succumb to fear and begin to self-censor.
Americans are horribly nearsighted if we don't realize that Mayor Reed's firing of Cochran threatens to do exactly what the terrorists aimed to do in France – to silence opposition using intimidation as a weapon. Whether liberal or conservative, pro-gay or pro-traditional marriage, people need to understand that not only are we Charlie Hebdo; we're also Kelvin Cochran. Left unhindered, those who seek conformity by fiat won't leave any of us untouched. They will fundamentally change the nature of our Republic by destroying our freedom.
So today, speak for Kelvin Cochran, but speak also for yourself. Sign one of the many petitions protesting Cochran's firing or call Mayor Reed's office at 404-330-6100. Whether you agree or disagree with Cochran's view is irrelevant. What's necessary for freedom to flourish is for us to adopt the same attitude as the Frenchman Voltaire. That is, whether we approve or disapprove of what someone says, we'll defend to the death their right to say it.