A professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Althea Butler, wrote that the maker of the film should be imprisoned. Hilariously, she even touts her status as a tenured professor to trot out the obligatory, “yes, I support freedom of speech, but…” (There’s always a “but,” isn’t there?) Journalist Mike Barnicle said that the preacher Terry Jones, who had merely promoted the film, should be arrested. Naturally, his fellow journalist Donny Deutsch was quick to agree. Many supposedly liberal celebrities called for the filmmakers to be punished. The White House confirmed that it had requested Youtube to remove the film, which, to their credit, they refused to do.
Perhaps some background of precedent is necessary. No less a constitutional authority than music producer Russell Simmons brought up Oliver Wendall Holmes’ famous observation that, “you can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” as a reason to imprison the filmmaker. Ironically, Simmons has championed himself as a defender of free speech in the past, but seems to have changed his mind. To be fair, he wasn’t the only dopey public figure to make this case.
To use the theater example, falsely yelling “fire” in a theater could conceivably result in an immediate panic, resulting in a very probable, immediate loss of life or serious physical injury.To say this is the same as watching a film on Youtube that makes bad pornography look positively Spielberg-esque is absurd.
Holmes’ quote comes from a significant first amendment case in 1919, Shenck vs. the United States. Socialist Charles Shenck was arrested and indicted for violating the 1917 Alien and Sedition act, distributing leaflets advocating opposition the military draft. The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, upheld the arrest of Shenck, establishing the “clear and present danger” test, which held that speech may be banned if it was likely to cause immediate harm to the United States.
This decision has been narrowed considerably in the decades following, most notably by Brandenburg vs. Ohio. Here, the Supreme Court established the “Brandenburg Test,” which held that, for speech to be held unconstitutional, there must exist intent, imminence and likelihood. Muslims living thousands of miles away rioting over a movie that has been on Youtube for months hardly meets the criteria of imminence, despite what this ludicrous editorial in the Los Angeles Times might think. In addition, one must believe that Muslims are mindless savages with no self-control and a predilection for violence in order to make the case of likelihood; itself a bigoted and slanderous belief. These gentlemen might take offense to that characterization.
Finally, there is absolutely no proof that the creator of the film acted with the sole intent of causing rioting and death in foreign countries. And even if he had, a movie that inflames Muslims by depicting revered cultural icons in an unflattering way can hardly be banned under the first amendment. If that was the case, one may suppose a certain White House-backed movie should be banned immediately.
This outrage is also curious considering there seems to be a different outlook depending on which religion one is mocking. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quick to denounce the Innocence of Muslims as “disgusting” and “reprehensible.” The Secretary was not quite as disgusted when she attended the hit Broadway Musical, “The Book of Mormon,” which offended a great many people in a similar mocking way, yet garnered nine Tony awards and was the toast of Broadway. One wonders if the Secretary would have issued a similarly disgusted statement if only the Mormons would have stormed the theater and burned it to the ground in protest. Or if she would have run taxpayer-funded television commercials denouncing the musical, as the U.S. is now doing in Pakistan.
The United States is unique in the world today in that our speech laws have become more relaxed. Campus speech codes have fared poorly in the courts. Flag burning amendments have failed to pass. While other countries (I’m looking in your direction, Great Britain) have tightened speech laws to ban “hate speech,” the U.S. allows it. It is clear that Muslim countries do not understand why the United States does not acquiesce to their wishes and arrest the filmmakers. This is evident by this column from Palestinian journalist Khalid Amayreh.
Referencing his attendance at American universities, Amayreh writes, “Having studied at and graduated from a number of American colleges, I realize how most Americans are jealously fanatical about preserving and clinging to their constitution, especially the First Amendment.” Bravo, Mr. Amayreh.
Unfortunately, Amayreh continues on. Speaking of the ACLU, he writes, “But the ACLU, which has done many good things and defended many good causes, can not guarantee that insulting religious symbols will not lead to further bloodshed.” Mr. Amayreh should know that the ACLU is not in the business of guaranteeing anything, much less the reaction of millions of individuals to insult. Besides, the muslim community are hardly innocent of insulting other’s religious beliefs.
But the definitive sentence which shows his mindset is this: “In the final analysis, my right not to be offended and insulted overrides a scoundrel’s right to malign the Prophet of Islam in order to satisfy his sick Islamophobia.” No, Mr. Amayreh, you are incorrect. In the United States of America, you do not have the right to not be offended, regardless of what the U.N. Secretary-General may believe.
It is unfortunate the U.S. government did not respond differently to the protests. A simple, “The United States government is not in the business of regulating its citizen’s speech” would have hit just the right note. Instead, we witness the groveling apology from the embassy in Cairo, that even the White House disavowed, which they are now frantically trying to flush down the memory hole. Not to mention the administration trotted out U.N. ambassador Susan Rice to directly contradict accounts of the attacker’s motives from the interim president of Libya, Mohammed Magarief.
It is past high time that the Muslim world grow up and begin acting like the peaceful religion that the mainstream media and politicians constantly assure us that it is. Part of that is to realize that being offended is part of life, and they would be better served by ignoring those that would mock them. After all, other religions have had to put up with being mocked for a very long time. And when you’ve lost the New York Times, you’ve lost everyone.
Exit Question: Are the French now the free speech standard-bearer?