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« With a patter and a pitter | Main | A provocative papyrus ... »

Where is the line?

The murder of an American diplomat and three others in Libya, the deaths of many others in riotous protests,  and an ongoing outbreak of rage in the Muslim world that shows no sign of abating call for us to ask an important question:

Should videos such as the hateful amateur production that sparked all the violence be protected as free speech? Americans are big on the notion of free speech, and rightly so: people should be able to express their views freely and without fear of recrimination. But are there limits on free speech?

Supreme court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes long ago coined the familiar axiom that "The most stringent protection would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic."

So, when does free speech cross the line between expressing and opinion and inciting a riot? The inflammatory video in question, posted by a California man from an Egyptian Coptic Christian sect, was clearly designed to provoke anger. It was posted back in July, but when it didn't get any traction, another Coptic Christian sent links of it to reporters in Egypt, the U.S., and elsewhere during the week prior to September 11. 

It's bad enough that the perpetrators of this offensive video bear the name "Christian," but the bigger question is whether an expression of speech that's clearly designed to provoke international riots should be protected. Would U.S. officials be justified in taking the video down? Should YouTube-owner Google take down the video -- or screen such material -- as an act of social responsibility?

I am confident there is no easy answer, but surely the question is worth asking.


Reader Comments (4)

I don't suppose us 'ordinary people' will ever have full access to the actual facts. There seems little doubt that the film incited the spread. There have been published notions that the original attack had been planned for months, before any knowledge of the film surfaced. It seems the notion is at least partly based on the type of weaponary that was used. A notion being published does not make it factual. Whether they are government sourced, or otherwise.

Tony, I don't think you can liken race-baiting to a man shouting fire in a crowded theater. Once we start limiting speech on the basis of people's response around the world, there is no limit to those limits. Whether it's a cheap shot film, a political cartoon, or a Salmon Rushdie novel, there are people out there just waiting to jump at the bait and engage in violence. I continue to believe that the best remedy is more free speech, not less, and I applaud the administration's efforts to get their message out on the airwaves in Muslim countries. In the battle for the hearts and minds, moderate voices need to continue speaking out, convincing people that the fringe voices are best ignored.

Sep 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStan Dotson

We abuse our freedoms shockingly. Our freedoms were put in place in the Constitution to protect us, not so that we could "get in each other's faces". Just because we CAN say...or do...a particular thing, doesn't mean we should. If we truly treated each other as we would want to be treated, we would protect our freedoms by using them responsibly (with freedom comes responsibility), thereby protecting them so that they can continue to protect us.

Sep 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterElaine Sears

In any other country, Christ can be called a devil without any noticeable reaction in the U.S., certainly not rioting where nitwits kill each other. People with half-sense understand the value of freedom of speech. In the places where the violence occurred, what would have happened if any citizen had called an imam or an ayatollah a devil? He would have been beheaded but in this country the president or clergyman can be and is called everything with no problems for the caller. Islam is a culture (not a religion) we don’t understand and never will understand. In any case, would anyone care to enumerate the number of Coptics who have been killed in Egypt alone? Which is worse – calling Mohammad the monster he was or killing a Coptic Christian?

Sep 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJim Clark

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