The eight dumbest things said about free speech this week

posted at 2:41 pm on September 14, 2012 by Mary Katharine Ham

Oh, the competition is fierce, what with many who should know better leaping to denounce “denigration of religion” and “hurting feelings” when the poking the religion and feelings in question might lead to an irrational, violent response to a YouTube video that looks like it was made in my parents’ basement with a camcorder circa 1987. Old and busted: Breezy requests that those offended “turn the channel” or “chill out” and brave, indignant battle cries for free speech in the face of those who don’t actually threaten it. New hotness: Respecting the right of those doing violence not to be offended by our speech.

1. Mike Barnicle was out of the box fast on the morning of 9/12 with this ludicrous suggestion on “Morning Joe.” He thinks a pastor in Florida, who allegedly backed the anti-Islam YouTube clip which is allegedly causing all this fuss, should be prosecuted by the Department of Justice as an accessory to murder. It was later found pastor Terry Jones had little to nothing to do with the YouTube clip in question. I wonder if Barnicle later found a copy of the Constitution.

2. Anthea Butler, tenured professor at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania will have you asking, “what is our children learning?” Butler first tweeted, “Good Morning. How soon is Sam Bacile going to be in jail folks? I need him to go now.When Americans die because you are stupid…And people do to jail for speech. First Amendment doesn’t cover EVERYTHING a PERSON says.” Butler then took to the pages of a national newspaper to defend her view. Read the whole thing:

If there is anyone who values free speech, it is a tenured professor!

So why did I tweet that Bacile should be in jail? 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. Even the film’s actors say they were duped.

Bacile’s movie is not the first to denigrate a religious figure, nor will it be the last. The Last Temptation of Christ was protested vigorously. The difference is that Bacile indirectly and inadvertently inflamed people half a world away, resulting in the deaths of U.S. Embassy personnel…

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. My condolences and prayers go out to the families of the U.S. Embassy employees killed in Libya.

3. Christiane Amanpour, an international reporter of some renown, treats the notion of free speech rather harshly in this interview with George Stephanopoulos. She likens making a crappy YouTube clip to “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.” Because, as we all know, speech is most free when we make its acceptability contingent on the reaction of the recipient. I think that’s call the Violent Psycho’s Veto.



4. William Saletan
of Slate, whose writing I often enjoy, claims it was Mitt Romney who betrayed free speech, not the Cairo embassy. Romney’s jump from the Cairo embassy’s statement to an accusation of “apologizing” for American values “embraced the illiberal Islamist mindset that led to the embassy invasion: To declare a movie offensive is to authorize its suppression.” Or something. He writes of the Cairo embassy’s response:

When you read the tweets alongside the initial statement, the message is clear. Free speech is a universal right. The Muslim-baiting movie is an abuse of that right. The embassy rejects the movie but defends free speech and condemns the invasion of its compound.

Does he believe a Christian-baiting or Mormon-baiting crappy YouTube clip is an “abuse of that right” worthy of condemnation by a mouthpiece of the U.S. government? I bet I could find a couple no fed has bothered to condemn yet, in order to affirm both our inclusiveness and our free speech. You know why? Because they shouldn’t, and they only do it when those baited are prone to violence.

As to whether it’s Romney who has “embraced the illiberal Islamist mindset that led to the embassy invasion: To declare a movie offensive is to authorize its suppression,” anyone think this kind of thing might have a little bit of a chilling effect? I’ll let Saletan have the last word:

I don’t know where you were born, Mr. Romney (just kidding!), but where I come from, there’s nothing more American than recognizing the idiocy of a man’s views and, at the same time, his right to express them. If you can’t tell the difference between those two things, the main threat to our values right now isn’t President Obama, the Egyptians, the Libyans, or our diplomats in Cairo. It’s you.

5. L.A. Times writer James Rainey suggests Romney go all out and have a rally with pastor Terry Jones who, as noted above, had little to nothing to do with the creation of this crappy YouTube clip. Because affirming the First Amendment must mean he hearts Terry Jones and all he believes.

Jones could talk about why it’s so important to show that Muhammad has sexual designs on any warm object that isn’t bolted to the ground. And Mitt of Massachusetts could talk about why it’s so important to protect the right of Americans to don silly beards and costumes to dramatize such views.

Most people do thing that’s pretty important. Many people have died protecting the right to do just that, even when it ticks someone off.

6. The Rev. Steven Martin, writing for Huffington Post:

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. Jones, and his love of the limelight, needs no further introduction. This latest incident seems to have been sparked by his promotion of a $5 million film produced and directed by Sam Bacile, a filmmaker living in Los Angeles. Being both a filmmaker and a pastor, I can relate to the responsibility both offices carry.

He has less sympathy for those who create crappy YouTube clips than those who would assassinate a U.S. ambassador? And again, Jones seems only to have agreed to screen the film if the crappy YouTube clip ever were to become a movie, but because his name is synonymous with “Muslim-baiting,” everyone jumped on including him in this story.

7. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs calls a pastor in Florida to ask him not to promote a crappy YouTube clip. I believe this has happened in the past, with officials calling Jones when he was threatening to burn Korans. I know the military has operational concerns, and I’m concerned about the safety of troops and diplomats, but having the nation’s high-ranking military officials ask people not to exercise their right to free speech is pretty chilling of free speech.

The military’s top uniformed leader decided on his own to phone an extremist Florida pastor linked to an inflammatory anti-Islamic online video, the Pentagon said Thursday – no one else asked him to do so.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey called Florida pastor Terry Jones on Wednesday to ask him to withdraw his support for the video that some reports have linked with anti-American unrest in the Muslim world, a spokesman said.

8. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo: Any list must include the kick-off capitulation on the free speech front this week, which came out of the Cairo embassy before it was overrun, but in an attempt to preemptively quell probable violent reactions to an anti-Islam YouTube clip.

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.

As Matt Welch wrote at Reason, how hard is it for the government to avoid making a value judgment on each, individual piece of speech extremists use as a pretext for violence? “How hard is it to say, ‘In the United States, we’re not in the business of approving these messages.’?” Many conservatives, me included, were annoyed with the Bush administration’s preoccupation with condemning anti-Muslim speech as “offensive” before moving on to affirm First Amendment rights. This is arguably more problematic because there is no accompanying affirmation of free speech. Most of us are not in the habit of denigrating people’s religions willy nilly, but most of us aren’t official mouthpieces of the U.S. government overseas, which should be making clear that speech that “hurts feelings” is not an “abuse” of free speech.

Yes, there have been problems with interpreting the timing of the Cairo embassy’s statement, which came before it was overrun. But the embassy later stood by the statement via its Twitter account long after violence had started, and as Jamie Kirchick writes:

I’ll leave you with another Matt Welch piece, in Tablet, which says it all: A pretext to murder in Libya.

Update: 9. Oh, dear.


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