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Satire is intended to provoke thought — even dissent. That’s why it must be protected.

21 January 2015

A Kevin Kallaugher cartoon shows President Obama's attempt to steer the government impeded by both Republicans (elephant) and Democrats (donkey). (Kevin "KAL" Kallaugher/The Economist)

In 1976, then–U.S. President Gerald Ford was mocked relentlessly and repeatedly on national TV as a clumsy buffoon who tripped over his own feet. Ford later wrote that while he did not particularly enjoy being portrayed as "an oafish ex-jock," he had to admit that it was effective and, yes, funny.

There isn't much Ford could have done about being mocked. Satiric television programs and the hundreds of editorial cartoons that appear every day in the U.S. media are protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

Satire and parody are meant to attack, scorn and ridicule, even to the point of blurring the line between truth and outrageousness. Favorite targets are politics and religion. The French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo is part of a long tradition of using humor to lambast political and religious figures and movements.

Wuerker-voting-machine

Politico's Matt Wuerker pokes fun at the complexities of U.S. elections. (Matt Wuerker/Politico)

In response to the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said free expression is what extremists "fear the most." While the extremists have weapons, the United States and France share a commitment to those who wield something history has shown to be even more powerful: the pen.

"Free expression and a free press are core values, they are universal values, principles that can be attacked but never eradicated, because brave and decent people around the world will never give in to the intimidation and the terror that those seeking to destroy those values employ," Kerry said.

Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution in Washington, writes about the history and purpose of editorial cartoons. He defends editorial cartooning as a long and special tradition that needs to be maintained.

"For me it's the right of the cartoonist to remind those in power or those seeking power that the cartoonist is prepared to laugh at them. Running governments is serious business, and laughter is not an inconsequential people's weapon in a society that elects its leaders," he said.

 

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