Americans say free speech trumps religious sensibilities, but most of the public also think that cartoons mocking religious figures are in poor taste or unacceptable
For three days last week Paris saw a number of deadly attacks by Islamist militants, beginning with an attack on the offices of a satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo which had attracted hostility for publishing controversial, and often graphic, cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. 12 people, including the magazine's editor and most prominent cartoonists of the magazine, were killed.
YouGov's latest research shows that, for most Americans (63%) it is more important to protect free speech than it is to protect the dignity of sincerely held religious beliefs. Only 19% of the public says that it is more important to protect the dignity of religious beliefs. Religious Americans, particularly Catholics (31%) are much more likely to say that it is more important to protect religious beliefs.
The public may say that free speech is more important than protecting religious beliefs, but that does not mean that they wholeheartedly approve of cartoons mocking religious figures, such as those published by Charlie Hebdo targeting Muslim figures as well as Christian and Jewish figures. Only 22% of Americans think that cartoons mocking religious figures are acceptable, while 43% say that they're 'acceptable, but in poor taste'. 26% say that such cartoons are not acceptable.
Interestingly, while Catholics are more likely than Protestants to say that protecting the dignity of religious belief is more important than free speech, Catholics (23%) are less likely than Protestants (36%) to say that cartoons mocking religious figures are not acceptable.
Looking at the behavior of Charlie Hebdo prior to the deadly attacks, 40% of Americans say that they behaved responsibly while 21% say that they behaved irresponsibly. This is in stark contrast to when riots and violence erupted across the Muslim world in 2006 after a Danish newspaper published cartoons which included a depiction of the prophet Mohammed. At that time 61% said that the European newspapers that published the cartoons had acted irresponsibly, while 29% of Americans said that they'd acted responsibly. The percentage of Americans with no firm opinion increased significantly, from 10% to 38%.