Free Speech, the Arab Spring and the Death of an American Diplomat

Screen grab from “The Innocence of Muslims”

Every month, amateur filmmakers upload videos to the web: videos full of hatred against Muslims, Jews, blacks, gays, women, Arabs, Russians, Americans—they’re all available to see, and nearly all of them are…ignored.

So what happens when yet another apparent whack-job makes a film—in this case with a bigger budget than most—that isn’t ignored? On the contrary, it is paid way too much attention—too much at least as far as most Americans are concerned. But some people, far away, do pay attention. They are the targets of the film’s ire after all. And this is, although with laughable production values, a slicker-looking piece of hatred than most.

The film is misunderstood in those faraway places, and taken to represent mainstream American beliefs. And so there is violence—quite possibly pre-planned—-and the slaying of a US ambassador and three other Americans. How do we avoid that happening in the future? Can we?

Do we do what the Germans do when it comes to anyone who denies the Holocaust or says “Heil Hitler”? Ban the speech, and prosecute the perpetrators?

Or what the British have recently tried doing with racist speech: charging—but failing to convict— the former captain of the English soccer team of a “racially aggravated public order offense”?

Or should the US continue to allow people like US-based Coptic Christian activist Nakoula Basseley Nakoula aka Sam Bacile and Florida pastor Terry Jones to express themselves freely, no matter how much their hateful messages insult and incite others, and imperil the lives of US citizens?

The trouble is, things may be changing faster than we can legislate, faster than we can think. Hate videos cost virtually nothing to make and are accessible globally at the click of a button. The “trailer” of The Innocence of Muslims has so far been downloaded close to 1.5 million times (as of noon Eastern on September 13).

There’s a fateful irony here. The Arab Spring has ushered in a degree of free speech in places like Libya and Egypt. With that has come the freedom to react to hateful speech from abroad that targets Muslims. On Sept 11 in Benghazi such a reaction took place, and boiled over into mob rule. Newly acquired free speech in North Africa may mean Americans have to re-think free speech in their own backyard.

And they may have to rethink the idea of free speech protections—or rather, the balance of protections. In the past, civics classes boiled that balance down to the much paraphrased line, you can’t (falsely) shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater, from then-Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. The limit of free speech arrives when you needlessly and recklessly endanger others.

The balance of protections may extend beyond the theater. The Innocence of Muslims (if it really exists beyond the “trailer”) did cry “Fire!” What’s perplexing Americans, though, is that it was never, figuratively or otherwise, shown in an American theater. And yet, angry audiences are nonetheless stampeding out of their theaters and toward US embassies across the Arab world.

It’s at those embassies and their outposts—and indeed in hotels frequented by American tourists—where the competing protections seem unbalanced. For these diplomats and citizens, is their right to personal security as valued as the free speech protections of others? And what of the context? This is playing out in countries that have recently overthrown dictators and are struggling with unfamiliar tensions that often upend new democracies.

Is it really enough now for Americans to tell themselves and the rest of world: “You see, we have the First Amendment here”?



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