I have to admit I’d never heard of Charlie Hebdo until it became the epicenter for the worst terrorist attack on French soil in two decades. It would be like the offices of Cracked or Mad had been raided here in the States, though Charlie Hebdo was certainly far more openly political and leftist than those safely zany lampoons of pop culture. But even if the comparison is imprecise, to see such a publication attacked by violent zealots, leaving its best and brightest minds bleeding out on fresh newsprint, is a kind of directly censorious assault that leaves the mind reeling.

It was censorship of the most direct kind, practiced since Mark Antony had Cicero’s severed head and hands displayed in the Forum, and like all such acts it was designed to breed censorship of the most indirect kind. Self-censorship is the ultimate goal, to get the satirist to give up attacking a sacred cow before they even begin.

Now here’s the thing. People have already begun responding with hashtags and solidarity to the barbarism, which is always welcome and a good sign. But ultimately it won’t be the person on the street or even the government that decides how much self-censorship will come from this assault. It’ll be the lawyers.

It’s all well and good to loudly proclaim the virtues of free speech in the face of terrorism designed to intimidate people into self-censorship. But what of the next generation of satirists and cartoonists, the magazines and rags that are struggling or yet to be born? What happens to them then they try to incorporate, to get insurance?

I can see it now: an insurance underwriter denying a satirical publication coverage after they refuse to self-censor. A staff lawyer preemptively putting the kibosh on a potentially inflammatory issue for liability reasons. Remember just a few short weeks ago, when The Interview was pulled from theaters? “Liability” was the fig leaf there, too.

And it’s not just a fig leaf for a satirist or cartoonist. Imagine if you, uninsured and unprotected, publish something that gets someone on your staff–or, hell, even an innocent person elsewhere–hurt or killed. In today’s climate, that’s a huge liability and you could find yourself on the hook for expenses that no modest income could cover.

That’s my big worry out of all of this. Not just that there will be self-censorship, but that it will be perversely driven not from ideology or fear but simple liability and actuarial charts. I hope that’s not the case. I hope that, whether through the use of new media or decentralized distribution, such prosaic issues aren’t enough to kneecap people’s speech and especially their humor. After all, such wasn’t the terrorists’ intent–they aren’t that smart. A suppressed bullet and car bomb are all the subtlety they know.

I hope that we won’t allow mundanity and prosaic interests to do to us what naked fear cannot, but I’m afraid I’m just too cynical to believe it will be so.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!