“Innocence of Muslims” film test First Amendment beliefs by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

Set aside such unacceptable (and criminal) ”clear and present” dangers such as  shouting Fire in a crowded theater, as a journalist I have always thought of myself as something of a First Amendment absolutist.  That’s being tested these days. The cornerstone of democracy is having a vigorous marketplace of ideas, where all ideas, regardless of merit, are tested, validated or refuted – with other ideas. The presumption is that from the melee will emerge the truth.

photo Reuters

As Americans, we are imbued with the idea of free speech, along the lines of “I disapprove of what you say but will defend to death your right to say it,” (sometimes attributed to Voltaire.) We have expanded the right to include not only the freedom to express ourselves but to have access to the information necessary to form our opinions.

Okay, so that is the theoretical and philosophical framework, but can we apply that to the incendiary short film Innocence of Muslims? The offensive, grotesque attack on Muhammad has been out for months but only ignited this month when an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian sent it viral.

We know what has happened since – four courageous Americans in the foreign service, including the remarkably effective ambassador Christopher Stevens, killed in Benghazi, Libya, an attack and flag burning at the American embassy in Cairo, and anti-American demonstrations in some 18 other countries.

All because of this disrespectful inflammatory piece of video trash?  Other reports suggest that anti-American attacks were organized as part of 9/11 remembrance strategies, retaliation for drone attacks and the like,  and that the video was just an accelerant  for previously planned events.  The outcome is tragic, whatever the precipitating cause.

Free speech, right of assembly and other democratic precepts are often hard to figure out in a newly emerging democracy, alien to formerly authoritarian regimes. Even when our own new democracy was new, in the 17th century, conviction for blasphemy   – another form of freedom of speech – meant capital punishment.  We had to evolve from that backward practice. So too do the new “democracies” of the Arab Spring. When their governments are fundamentalist, things are even more complicated.

Innocence of Muslims, as with the Danish anti-Muslim cartoons in 2005, the 1979 neo-Nazis’ march in the Jewish suburb of Skokie, Illinois and anti-Semitic blood libels kept alive by some in the Arab media remind us  that First Amendment protections aren’t there primarily for widely accepted expression.  They are there to protect minority viewpoints, however stupid, incendiary, obnoxious, hateful, damnable…..no matter how much we may want to wring the necks of those who promote the garbage.

This is very very hard. Google removed the 14-minute video in Egypt and Libya because of the danger.  But when are such restrictions appropriate? With instantaneous global communication, do we need to rethink “clear and present danger?” We certainly want governments here and abroad to crack down on the violence, irrespective of how “insulted” the mobs may be by the precipitating content. However, we don’t want our government to crack down on speech itself. We don’t want to cave to a “heckler’s veto.” That would mean the terrorists who flame hate and carnage will  have won, right?

Clearly, it will take people inside and outside government to condemn the abuses and try to persuade those self-same idiots to understand the potential consequences of their exercise of free speech, a right that brings responsibility along with it. (The same thing would apply to violent video games that, in some instances, have inspired imitative behavior.)

It will be especially difficult for the leaders of the nascent Arab Spring democracies,  who,  for short term political gain, aren’t inclined to insist that freedom comes with responsibilities. It’s hard to articulate and maintain such enlightened  principles when so many in their populations are mired in pre-enlightenment hostility to modernity itself.  Think Pakistan when considering how long the road will likely be.

Here at home our hard fought First Amendment freedoms have to be protected, but this week I find myself wondering what price we should have to pay.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

5 Responses to “Innocence of Muslims” film test First Amendment beliefs by Marjorie Arons-Barron

  1. C R Krieger says:

    I believe, US UN Ambassador Susan Rice notwithstanding (I go with Libya President Mohamed Yousef El-Magariaf on this) that the attack on Ambassador Stevens was preplanned and was a response to US drone attacks on al Qaeda.&nbsp: They would have happened whether the video was made or not.  A lot of people think that using drones to attack our enemies is risk free.  It is not.  The enemy, if at least one survives, always gets a vote.

    As for the riots across the Muslim world, they are NOT about us.  We are just the poster board upon which the rioters write their messages.  No matter how many of our rights we give up, they will still have grievences against their governments and the Salafists will still think the Muslim Brotherhood is not firm enough in the pursuit of Islam.

    As an American I am embarrassed that we would drag the video maker out of his home at midnight to interrogate him about the video.  I would hope this is not Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s, or Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union from the 1920s through the 1950s and beyond.

    One of the things that makes the United States exceptional is our belief in free speech.  Why does Canadian Mark Steyn live in New Hampshire?  Could it be the lack of Free Speech in Canada?  He got tied up in a Canadian Human Rights Council case when the Canadian Magazine McLeans printed extras from one of his books.  He offended a Muslim, who turned him in.

    How does that line go in The American President?  “America is hard, Bob.  You have to want it bad.”  Something like that.

    Free Speech in the US did not kill our Ambassador to Libya, nor the three people with him.  Free Speech in the US did not touch off riots in various Muslim majority nations.  That said, the date of 11 September was a convenient marker for those behind the riots.

    If we roll on this we will not only diminish our own freedom, but we will wave a red flag in front of those overseas who would like us to conform to their way of thinking.

    And, it would make me, and others, a lot less willing to accept the Free Speech argument for taxpayer funding of people like Robert Maplethorpe.

    Aside from that, I have no strong feelings.  I think that calling for the resignation of the President over the treatment of this video maker is a bit over the top.  On the other hand, calling for the dismissal of Jay Carney and Eric Holder might not be.  As I say, I am embarrassed, as a US Citizen, by the photo of the man being taken from his home at midnight.  And, for that I blame Bush (and Holdeer)!

    Regards  —  Cliff

  2. Steve says:

    Yes, I keep hearing about the guy who made the movie. I’m really not interested in who made the movie or why. It’s not a crime to make an offensive movie in this country. We don’t have a Ministry for the Prevention of Insults to any religion.
    I heard someone say that the deaths of the four Americans are not a tragedy but an atrocity, and that is a distinction worth considering. I don’t endorse gratuitous insults to any religion, but if we let those crazy church of whatever people go to the funerals of dead soldiers and scream all their rubbish, if we let the KKK march, I really don’t see how we can prevent someone from making a distasteful movie. As far as whether the price of freedom of speech is worth it, I’m shocked that we’ve come to the point at which we’re even asking that question.

  3. Arthur says:

    A lot of issues that shouild be separate are jumbled together here.
    1. I am not aware of any American in a position of prominenece asserting that the group that made the film should have been prevented from making it . They had the right under the Constitution .
    2. Similarly ,however , any American has the right to question the motive for making the film . When it did not catch on as an English language trailer on Youtube , someone dubbed it Arabic and shoved in the face of Egyptians.To what end? Recent history gave us all an excellent idea of what would ensue . Was that the goal ?
    3. When contacted , Nakoula Basseley Nakoula posed as Sam Bacile , a Jewish Israeli , and claimed that a number of Jewish investors had financed the project . How can that be viewed as anything other than an effort to direct the likely violence against a group that had nothing to do with the movie .
    4. In my view , this so closely matched what an agent provocateur acting for al Qaeda would have done , it is incumbent on the authorities to inquire of the parties responsible .
    5. The First Amendemnt gives you a right to publish , but not to require someone else to make your publication available forever .Can the City scrub graffitti or is that suppression of the speech contained in the tagging ?

  4. Steve says:

    The goal of dubbing the film could have been to create havoc, but it is still not a crime to dub a film. What we’re jumbling is bad intent and crime. If you make an anti-Catholic film or a film mocking Jesus, and I kill you, I committed the crime, not you. No one suggested Bill Maher committed a crime in making the film Religulous (sp?), nor should they have.

    As for graffitti, the problem is that the tagging is generally done on another person’s property, You absolutely have the right to question the motives and to condemn them