Appalling But Not Blasphemous: Why The Anti-Islam Film Is Protected Speech

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On the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed during an attack on the U.S. consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi. The attack was purportedly sparked by an American-made film that presented a highly critical portrayal of the prophet Muhammad. The Wall Street Journal reports that the film entitled “Innocence of Muslims” was produced by a man who identified himself in a telephone interview as Sam Bacile, but whom the FBI believes to be Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. In the interview, Bacile described the film as “a political effort to call attention to the hypocrisies of Islam,” and later referred to Islam as “a cancer.”

Although the movie was posted on YouTube in early July, it was not until very recently that it began to garner attention outside of the U.S. Following the attack in Libya, violent protests have spread throughout the Muslim world into dozens of other countries. People are outraged not just because of the film’s mocking depiction of Muhammad but because they believe the U.S. government should have prevented the film from becoming public in the first place. Unlike many other countries where any video posted onto the Internet must initially be approved by the government, the U.S. has a long tradition of free expression that limits the government from taking any such action. Shortly after the deadly attacks in Libya, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to explain the nature of the First Amendment. She clarified:

I know it is hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day. . . . In today’s world with today’s technologies, that is impossible. But even if it was possible, our country does have a long tradition of free expression, which is enshrined in our constitution and our law. And we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be.

Clinton’s remarks encompass the essence of the freedom of speech component of the First Amendment—Americans are allowed to express themselves as they wish and the government is not allowed to interfere.

Of course, there are some exceptions to protected speech. In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court established a two-prong test for determining whether or not speech is protected, holding that: (1) speech can be prohibited if it is “directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and (2) it is “likely to incite or produce such action.” Under this test, it would be difficult to prove that the anti-Islam film is not protected speech. While the film has in fact induced “lawless action” around the globe, it is unlikely that the film’s direct purpose was to spur this type of action. Even if this was the intent, the movie originally appeared on the Internet over two months ago, and it is only within the past week that violence has erupted; thus, the imminence requirement of the test would likely not be satisfied.

Deplorable as it is, the anti-Islam film is protected speech and as such, the U.S. government could not have stopped it from disseminating around the world. The takeaway from the tragic events that have taken place in the past week is that a view expressed by one man or an insignificant minority certainly does not represent the sentiment of all Americans and most importantly, that no matter how offensive free speech may be, violence is not a justified response.

Posted by Kelly A. Crecco on Mon. September 17, 2012 1:21 PM
Categories: Freedom of Speech

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