In defense of the right to offend

Charles C. Haynes

Photographers take pictures outside the home of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who has been linked by news organizations to the production of the controversial video, “Innocence of Muslims”, in Cerritos, Calif. on Sept. 14, 2012. The Coptic bishop for Los Angeles, Bishop Serapion, told Reuters that Nakoula called him, denying any link to the film and saying he had been a victim of mistaken identity by the media. (REUTERS)
Extremists of all stripes are having a field day.

(Washington Post) – Loony rabble-rousers at home – the people behind “Innocence of Muslims,” the now infamous film insulting the prophet Muhammad – have succeeded in giving loony rabble-rousers abroad a golden opportunity to promote violence in the name of their own sick, twisted vision of Islam and the world.

The filmmakers join the ranks of Terry Jones, Fred Phelps and other American extremists who will say and do anything to make headlines and provoke outrage.

But however vile the filmmakers’ motives and however odious their speech, we must defend the indefensible by upholding their right to freedom of expression.

Needless to say, much of the world doesn’t agree.

From the president of Egypt (who is calling for the makers of the film to be punished) to some pundits in Europe (who are asking once again why Americans tolerate hate speech), the American commitment to robust free speech is being widely questioned and debated.

Even in the land of the free, protecting the right to offend is an increasingly tough sell. A disturbing 43 percent of Americans do not think people should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups, according to a 2009 survey conducted by the First Amendment Center.

The U.S. Supreme Court does, of course, allow some restrictions on speech under the First Amendment, including speech intended to incite imminent violence. But this film doesn’t meet that test.

Although the filmmakers surely knew that their film would provoke angry protests (and no doubt that was part of their intent), they aren’t responsible for radical groups halfway around the world using the film as an excuse to kill American officials and attack Western embassies.

If the United States were to react to this violence by attempting to censor speech that deeply offends religions (as in some European countries) or speech that is blasphemous (as in some Muslim majority countries), Americans would forfeit the right to freedom of speech and religion.

Once government has the power to punish speech deemed “offensive” or “hateful,” the First Amendment is effectively repealed and no one’s speech is safe from prosecution and no one’s religion is safe from governmental interference.

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