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Pope Francis on free speech: if you insult religion, expect violence

Pope Francis
Pope Francis
Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

Today, Pope Francis addressed the issue of free speech in the wake of last week's Charlie Hebdo attacks. He praised the ideals of free speech, describing it as a "fundamental human right" and a "duty" — but only up to a point. Although the Pope stopped short of calling for offensive speech to be outlawed, it was clear from his discussion that he does not embrace the idea that "free speech" means an environment in which people can express even the most extreme and offensive views.

Rather, the Pope suggested, certain speech — such as offensive comments about religion — is so inherently provocative that it is "normal" for it to result in violence. To illustrate that point, Pope Francis constructed a hypothetical about how angry and violent he would become if someone insulted his mother. "If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch," the Pope said, making a punching gesture towards Gasparri, an aide who was standing near him at the time.

People should refrain from insulting religion for the same reason, the Pope explained. "People who speak badly about religions or other religions, who make fun of them, who make a game out of the religions of others," the Pope said, "are provocateurs." And if they go past the "limit" of acceptable speech, violent retaliation is to be expected. "What happens to them is what would happen to Dr. Gasparri if he says a curse word against my mother. There is a limit."

To those used to America's free speech tradition, which champions the freedom to give offense over the right to be protected from it, Francis's statements may sound uncomfortably similar to victim blaming. But they are actually very close to many European countries' positions on the limits of free speech. In France, for instance, speech that incites hatred against an individual or group based on their religion, race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation is illegal. Similar rules are in place in other European countries, including Denmark (which criminalizes speech that "spreads racial hatred," and the United Kingdom, which criminalizes speech and written material that are likely to "stir up racial hatred."

That restrictive approach to speech is often seen as linked to Europe's experience of the Holocaust, when hate speech against Jews and other minority groups helped create an environment that led to the mass slaughter of millions of people.