The PEN controversy


PEN American has decided to give the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award. This decision has met with some blow back. Six authors have decided to protest the award by withdrawing from the PEN American Center’s annual gala on May 5.

While I knew of the horrific events of January 7 of this year, I didn’t really know the publication. After all it’s in French, a language I have ignored for the most part since I left high school. The protest caught my attention and I did a little digging.

From what I can determine, Charlie Hebdo, isn’t fearlessly uncovering plots, conspiracies, and corruption. Imagine Mad Magazine satire targeting politicians, and religions. In 1982 one of it cartoonists admitted on radio that he was anti-Semitic. He continued to work for the magazine until 2008 when some of his work drew a complaint. The magazine’s editor noted that the publication had been sued thirteen times by Catholic organizations, and seemed proud of it. One Cartoon depicted the ‘Father’, ‘Son’, and ‘Holy Spirit’ engaged in sodomy.

Charlie Hebdo isn’t the only magazine the goes for shock. In 1991, in Canada, the Frank magazine ran a satirical advertisement for a contest which invited young Tories to “Deflower Caroline Mulroney.” Her father, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, threatened physical harm to those responsible. Later he joined with several women’s groups in denouncing the ad as an incitement to rape.

In every democracy there are limits to Free Speech. “You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater.” That’s the gist of a 1919 U.S. Supreme Court written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. In 2007 the European Union approved legislation that would make denying the Holocaust punishable by jail sentences. Canada and other nations have laws against hate speech.

I’m not certain we need laws against blasphemy to keep people from printing a cartoon featuring rolls of toilet paper labeled “Bible,” “Koran,” and “Torah.” with the headline “In the shitter, all the religions”. However, the world has enough angry people striving for attention of any sort.

I condemn the murder of those people, but I wouldn’t chant ‘Je suis Charlie.’ I certainly wouldn’t buy the paper.


To see some of my short stories go to