A 14-minute trailer for the film posted on YouTube sparked violence in the Middle East, including an attack in Libya in which a U.S. ambassador was killed. Nakoula, a Coptic Christian and American citizen who served federal prison time for check fraud, told The Associated Press in a short interview last week that he was involved in management and logistics for the anti-Islamic film. Federal officials, however, told the AP they have concluded he was behind the movie.
Furor over the film has been widespread. Bahrain protesters used Twitter to organize demonstrations that included burning American flags in the nation that hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Pakistan's conservative Islamist parties sent out text messages, mosque announcements and made phone calls to bring out protest crowds, including about 1,000 people in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Sunday and hundreds who rushed the U.S. consulate in Karachi, sparking clashes with police in which one demonstrator was killed.
"Yes, we understand the First Amendment and all of this stuff," wrote Khalid Amayreh, a prominent Islamist commentator and blogger in Hebron on the West Bank. "But you must also understand that the Prophet (for us) is a million times more sacred than the American Constitution."
In America, the government can't even order that the video be removed from YouTube. All it can do is ask. And so far, parent company Google has declined, saying the video was within its guidelines for content. The company did restrict access to the video in certain countries, including Egypt, Libya and Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation.
"This can be a challenge because what's OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere," the company said in a statement.
That's precisely the point about the First Amendment, Armour said.
"The reason it is a constitutionally protected interest is precisely because it may prove unpopular," he said. "Words and images don't just convey information, they are attached to consequences. That's when we really have to ask ourselves, 'What price are we willing to pay for that First Amendment interest?' And these are the times that really test our convictions."
Repressing Nakoula's right to make the video would set the U.S. on a slippery slope that might eventually lead to censorship of such shows such as "South Park," which often pokes fun at Jesus Christ, and other religious parodies that are "woven into the American way," said Armour.
In 1975, former CIA agent Philip Agee published a book detailing agency operations and disclosing the names of a number of CIA agents working undercover overseas, Rosenthal said. Even in that instance, the U.S. government didn't press criminal charges but instead revoked Agee's passport and sued him for the book's profits.
"It's not clear that there is, on the books today, a law that makes what (Nakoula) did a crime," Rosenthal said. "This is an extremely difficult problem."
Indeed, federal officials have said they are looking at Nakoula only in the context of whether he violated his probation for the fraud conviction. Under terms of his sentence, he was banned from using computers or the Internet as part of his sentence.
The probation issue "gives the government a relatively low visibility way of prosecuting him but not technically for what he said and how inflammatory it was," Armour said. "It may be a way of splitting the baby."
Associated Press writer Brian Murphy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.
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