Trudeau defends freedom of speech after outcry over comments on Paris attack

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was pressed Tuesday to clarify comments he made last week about the limits of free speech after a teacher in France was beheaded by a terrorist for showing cartoon caricatures of Prophet Muhammad during a class discussion.

French president called Quebec premier to thank him for support — but didn't call the prime minister

A demonstrator holds a French flag bearing the slogan "Freedom of Speech" during a demonstration in Paris. Demonstrations around France paid tribute to French history teacher Samuel Paty, who was beheaded by a 18-year-old Moscow-born Chechen refugee who was later shot dead by police. (Michel Euler/The Associated Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was pressed Tuesday to clarify comments he made last week about the limits of free speech after a teacher in France was beheaded by a terrorist for showing cartoon caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a class discussion.

"I think it is important to continue defending freedom of expression, freedom of speech. Artists help us reflect and challenge our views and they contribute to our society and we will always continue to defend freedom of expression," Trudeau said in French today.

Trudeau was criticized last week by opposition MPs for not immediately condemning the Oct. 16 killing of 47-year-old teacher Samuel Paty in a Paris suburb. On Friday, he was pressed by reporters to declare his support for free speech in the wake of the attack. Trudeau condemned the attack — but his comments on free speech did not pacify his critics.

"Freedom of expression is not unlimited. For example, it's not allowed to cry 'fire' in a packed cinema," Trudeau said in French during his Friday press conference in Ottawa. "In a respectful society such as ours, everyone must be aware of the impact of our words and actions on others.

"There are communities experiencing huge discrimination in Canada today. So yes, we will always defend freedom of expression, but everyone must act respectfully toward others and not try to needlessly or arbitrarily hurt someone we share this planet and society with."

Paty used the caricatures as a teaching tool during a classroom discussion of free speech. That appears to have incited the attack against him by an 18-year-old Chechen refugee previously unknown to French intelligence services.

The initial publication of those cartoons in 2015 by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo inspired a terrorist attack that killed 12 of the magazine's staff.

Charlie Hebdo republished some of those images in early September of this year, a day before the 14 people charged with planning and aiding the attack went on trial in France.

Macron thanks Legault

Quebec Premier François Legault said President Emmanuel Macron called him this morning to thank him for taking a strong stand on the importance of free speech, and for disagreeing with Trudeau's Friday comments.

Macron has defended the right to display caricatures of Muhammad in the wake of the attack.

"It is certain that there are some political leaders who fear terrorism and who, faced with the blackmail of certain radical religious groups, are ready to make concessions which are not reasonable," said Legault.

"The Quebec nation has values," he added, citing "freedom of expression," "secularism" and the "French language." 

"It is not true that in the name of multiculturalism, we are going to put that aside and that we are going to make exaggerated compromises," he added.

Trudeau won't condemn use of cartoons

Asked today whether Macron also called Trudeau, the prime minister said he would be speaking with Macron "soon" and suggested that Macron may have called Legault to offer condolences after the sword attack in Quebec City on Halloween night. 

"I expressed my condolences to France and I imagine I will be speaking with the French president shortly," Trudeau said. "I think that after such an attack like we saw in Quebec, there would be condolences shared. I have worked with Mr. Macron on important issues for everyone and I will continue to work with him as an ally."

Trudeau also repeated his condemnation of the attack against Paty and of a separate terrorist attack that saw one woman beheaded and two others killed in Nice, France.

"Acts of terrorism and acts of hate that we have seen in France are unacceptable, unjustifiable. There is no reason for such violence. That is what I have said and that is what I will continue to say," he said today.

After Macron's call to Legault became public today, Trudeau was asked if his Friday comments on the limitations on free speech extended to a condemnation of the publication of the caricatures of Muhammad.

"No," he said. "Our journalists, our artists have an important challenge function in our society and we need to leave them free to do their work."

With files from AFP