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Free speech, religion clash over anti-Muslim film

By Gillian Flaccus

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 18 2012 3:15 p.m. MDT

A Muslim youth pauses near a poster during a protest against an anti-Islam film in Jakarta, Indonesia, Monday, Sept. 17, 2012. Indonesians enraged over an anti-Islam film hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta on Monday, marking the first violence in the world's most populous Muslim country since outrage exploded last week in the Middle East and beyond.

Dita Alangkara, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

CERRITOS, Calif. — While the man behind an anti-Islam movie that ignited violence across the Middle East would likely face swift punishment in his native Egypt for making the film, in America the government is in the thorny position of protecting his free speech rights and looking out for his safety even while condemning his message.

It's a paradox that makes little sense to those protesting and calling for blood. To them, the movie dialogue denigrating the Prophet Muhammad is all the evidence needed to pursue justice — vigilante or otherwise — against Nakoula Bassely Nakoula, an American citizen originally from Egypt.

In America, there's nothing illegal about making a movie that disparages a religious figure. And that has the Obama administration walking a diplomatic tight rope less than two months before the election — how to express outrage over the movie's treatment of Islam without compromising the most basic American freedom.

"The thing that makes this particularly difficult for the United States is that ... we treat what most of us would refer to as hate speech as constitutionally protected speech and Americans don't appreciate, I think, how unusual this position seems in the rest of the world," said Lawrence Rosenthal, a professor at Chapman University's School of Law in Orange, Calif.

The situation also raises vexing questions about how far the government can and should go to protect someone who exercises their First Amendment right. In the past, for example, police have stood guard to ensure Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan could march without being attacked for their views.

But Nakoula's case invites scrutiny because the free speech he exercised with the film "Innocence of Muslims" has had such far-reaching and violent implications.

If the government were to overtly protect Nakoula, it could be seen by some as tacit approval of the film, and further enflame protests. Leaving him to fend for himself could have deadly consequences. There are examples of violence against others who have written or spoken against Muhammad.

White House spokesman Jay Carney on Tuesday stressed that the video was not connected to the United States government and suggested it was being "exploited by groups that have an interest in creating chaos and destabilizing their local government or attacking the west or the United States."

Egypt's general prosecutor on Tuesday issued arrest warrants for seven expat Egyptian Coptic Christians, including Nakoula, and referred them to trial on charges of harming national unity, insulting and publicly attacking Islam and spreading false information. The charges carry the death penalty.

So far, the U.S. government has acknowledged offering Nakoula very limited assistance. Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies escorted Nakoula to an interview with federal probation officials. They did so in the dead of night and allowed Nakoula to cover his face. And early Monday, deputies answered his family's request for help leaving the house where they'd been holed up for five days so they could reunite with the 55-year-old filmmaker. All remain in hiding.

Department spokesman Steve Whitmore stressed the agency is not providing protective custody. He referred questions to federal authorities, who have declined to comment.

Jody Armour, a professor at the University of Southern California's Gould School of Law, said it's "not unusual at all for the government to step in and give a citizen in distress or danger special protection, but it can't be unlimited. They're going to have to strike a balance."

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