By Matt Welch – Yesterday’s dramatic congressional testimony about the deadly Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attacks on U.S. interests in Benghazi, Libya convincingly corroborated what was widely reported within days of the attack: that senior American officials on the ground knew immediately, despite the Obama administration’s storyline to the contrary, that the assault did not arise out of a “spontaneous” demonstration outside the U.S. Consulate in protest of an obscure YouTube trailer of a homemade anti-Islam movie called Innocence of Muslims.
Falsely assessing partial blame for the violence on a piece of artistic expression inflicted damage not just on the California resident who made it—Nakoula Basseley Nakoula is currently serving out a one-year sentence for parole violations committed in the process of producing Innocence—but also on the entire American culture of free speech. In the days and weeks after the attacks, academics and foreign policy thinkers fell over themselves dreaming up new ways to either disproportionately punish Nakoula or scale back the very notion of constitutionally protected expression.
Fourteen days after Ambassador Chris Stevens was murdered by Islamists, President Barack Obama stood up in front of the United Nations and declared that the “message” of a movie virtually no one will ever see “must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity,” that “the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam,” and that we all should “condemn incitement against Sufi Muslims, and Shiite pilgrims.”
It should give even Obama’s strongest supporters pause that the same administration so wary about characterizing Benghazi as a “terrorist attack” was simultaneously so eager to characterize an artistic provocation as a (potentially criminal) incitement.
What follows is a partial timeline of statements made in the first two weeks after the attack, from government officials and media commentators who lent credence to the now-discredited notion that Ambassador Stevens and three other U.S. personnel died because of a YouTube video. If we are to robustly defend the American culture of free speech, it’s important to remember those who so quickly chose to throw the First Amendment under a bus.
Sept. 11, 2012: U.S. Embassy in Cairo:
U.S. Embassy Condemns Religious Incitement
The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.
Sept. 12, 2012: Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania:
How soon is Sam Bacile going to be in jail folks? I need him to go now.When Americans die because you are stupid…
Sept. 12, 2012: Rev. Steven D. Martin, CEO of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good:
I have no sympathy for anyone who would assassinate a U.S. ambassador. But I have even less sympathy for filmmakers who spread hatred and for pastors who knowingly incite violence.
Sept. 13, 2012: Hillary Clinton, secretary of state:
I also want to take a moment to address the video circulating on the Internet that has led to these protests in a number of countries. Let me state very clearly – and I hope it is obvious – that the United States Government had absolutely nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its content and message. America’s commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. And as you know, we are home to people of all religions, many of whom came to this country seeking the right to exercise their own religion, including, of course, millions of Muslims. And we have the greatest respect for people of faith.
To us, to me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible. It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose: to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage.
Sept. 14, 2012: Jay Carney, White House press spokesman:
We also need to understand that this is a fairly volatile situation and it is in response not to United States policy, not to obviously the administration, not to the American people. It is in response to a video, a film that we have judged to be reprehensible and disgusting. That in no way justifies any violent reaction to it, but this is not a case of protests directed at the United States writ large or at U.S. policy. This is in response to a video that is offensive to Muslims.
Sept. 14, 2012: Bill Press, radio host:
What, if anything, should happen to the people who made this video? I gotta tell you, I think they are as guilty, that’s my opinion, I think they are as guilty as the terrorists who carried out those attacks against our embassy in Libya. Look, we don’t know everybody who was involved, but we’ve seen, I’ve seen some of them on television. This is a group of extremist, Muslim-hating, so-called Christians in southern California who are using their religion to stir up hatred against Islam. They’re basing this on their Christian beliefs. They are, I believe, every bit as guilty as al Qaeda members who, think about it, who use the Koran and abuse their religion to stir up hatred against the United States. […]
I think we…ought to be identifying the people who made this video and go after them with the full force of the law and lock their ass up.
Sept. 14, 2012: Anthea Butler:
The “free speech” in Bacile’s film is not about expressing a personal opinion about Islam. It denigrates the religion by depicting the faith’s founder in several ludicrous and historically inaccurate scenes to incite and inflame viewers. […]
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Jones on Wednesday to ask him to stop promoting Bacile’s film. Clearly, the military considers the film a serious threat to national security. If the military takes it seriously, there should be consequences for putting American lives at risk.
While the First Amendment right to free expression is important, it is also important to remember that other countries and cultures do not have to understand or respect our right.
Sept. 16, 2012: Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations:
[B]ased on the best information we have to date, what our assessment is as of the present is in fact what – it began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo, where, of course, as you know, there was a violent protest outside of our embassy sparked by this hateful video. […]
[T]his is a spontaneous reaction to a video, and it’s not dissimilar but, perhaps, on a slightly larger scale than what we have seen in the past with The Satanic Verses with the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Sept. 18, 2012: Sarah Chayes, former special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:
While many 1st Amendment scholars defend the right of the filmmakers to produce this film, arguing that the ensuing violence was not sufficiently imminent, I spoke to several experts who said the trailer may well fall outside constitutional guarantees of free speech. “Based on my understanding of the events,” 1st Amendment authority Anthony Lewis said in an interview Thursday, “I think this meets the imminence standard.”
Finally, much 1st Amendment jurisprudence concerns speech explicitly advocating violence, such as calls to resist arrest, or videos explaining bomb-making techniques. But words don’t have to urge people to commit violence in order to be subject to limits, says Lewis. “If the result is violence, and that violence was intended, then it meets the standard.”
Sept. 18, 2012: Tim Wu, The New Republic:
When Censorship Makes Sense: How YouTube Should Police Hate Speech
A better course would be to try to create a process that relies on a community, either of regional experts or the serious users of YouTube. Community members would (as they do now) flag dangerous or illegal videos for deletion. Google would decide the easy cases itself, and turn the hard cases over to the community, which would aim for a rough consensus. Such a system would be an early-warning signal that might have prevented riots in the first place.
Sept. 20, 2012: President Barack Obama:
Here’s what happened. … You had a video that was released by somebody who lives here, sort of a shadowy character who — who made an extremely offensive video directed at — at Mohammed and Islam.
Sept. 25, 2012: President Barack Obama:
In every country, there are those who find different religious beliefs threatening; in every culture, those who love freedom for themselves must ask how much they are willing to tolerate freedom for others.
That is what we saw play out the last two weeks, as a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world. I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity. It is an insult not only to Muslims, but to America as well – for as the city outside these walls makes clear, we are a country that has welcomed people of every race and religion. We are home to Muslims who worship across our country. We not only respect the freedom of religion – we have laws that protect individuals from being harmed because of how they look or what they believe. We understand why people take offense to this video because millions of our citizens are among them.
Sept. 25, 2012: Eric Posner, professor at the University of Chicago Law School:
The vile anti-Muslim video shows that the U.S. overvalues free speech. […]
Americans need to learn that the rest of the world—and not just Muslims—see no sense in the First Amendment. Even other Western nations take a more circumspect position on freedom of expression than we do, realizing that often free speech must yield to other values and the need for order. Our own history suggests that they might have a point. […]
So symbolic attachment to uneasy, historically contingent compromises, and a half-century of judicial decisions addressing domestic political dissent and countercultural pressures, prevent the U.S. government from restricting the distribution of a video that causes violence abroad and damages America’s reputation. And this is a video that, by the admission of all sides, has no value whatsoever.