Searching for a balance between freedom of expression and religious tolerance

By Erin Valentine

A recent Pew Research Center study was released on the public opinion surrounding the shooting at the offices of a French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The discussion has centered for people on the balance between freedom of expression and religious tolerance.

On January 7, two Islamist terrorists killed 11 people and injured 11 others at the newspaper’s headquarters due to its multiple cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, which is considered to be blasphemous in Islamic traditions.

According to the Pew Research Center study, 60% of the total people polled said that they believed it was okay to publish the cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad, while 28% said they did not support the magazine’s choice.


The study also found that non-whites and women were less likely to be okay with the magazine’s choice to depict the Prophet, while republicans were more likely.

This shooting sparked discussion on whether the importance of free speech outweighed or was exempt to the issues of religious tolerance.

“Within journalism there is a wide gamut of how people treat the responsibility aspect of the first amendment,” said Vic Costello, associate professor of communications at Elon University. Costello explained that even though the freedoms are there, that does not necessarily mean that they must always be acted on.

“There’s always this balance between the freedoms that we enjoy and social responsibility,” Costello said.

According to Jan Register, program assistant at the Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life, the Truitt Center’s focus is religious tolerance. Register said that it is important to understand people’s beliefs.

“You meet people who are different than you and learn about them and you develop a relationship with them,” Register said. “I think the whole problem with our world is that we don’t get to know each other.”

A statement from Pope Francis supported religious tolerance over the freedom of expression. “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith,” he said. “There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression, there are limits.”

“Je suis Charlie” became a slogan of solidarity behind those who were killed during the shooting.

Others, however, find that freedom of expression takes precedent.

Candy McKinnon, an Elon resident, said, “If people say stuff I don’t like I just don’t listen, or I turn the channel… We’ve all become too sensitive.”

Charlie Hebdo resurfaced the discussion of finding balance between free speech and respect of religious beliefs.

“Free speech is a precious thing that ought to be treated with respect,” said Costello.

Listen to Jan Register explain the Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life’s stance on religious tolerance. 


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