“Innocence” film triggers global debate over free, hate speech

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Voice of America photo/U.S. government work

Protesters breach the United States Embassy in Yemen

Jacob Winick, Staff Writer

Does our right to free speech give us the right to spread hate?

That is the question many Americans are asking after an Egyptian television station played a clip of a controversial anti-Muslim film in September sparking international protests and the killing of a U.S. ambassador in Libya.

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Egyptian Christian living in the Los Angeles area, produced the film, titled the “Innocence of Muslims.” It insults Muslims and portrays Mohammed as a homosexual and pederast.

As news of the film spread, at first protesters throughout the Arab world remained relatively peaceful, chanting for the destruction of the film and yelling anti-American slurs.

Then on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, mobs became violent. Militants possibly linked to Al-Qaeda descended upon American consulates. Protests began in Cairo, and subsequently spread across 61 countries, according to a Legend analysis, climaxing when a mob in Benghazi murdered J. Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya.

The attacks raised questions in the international community over the right of films like the “Innocence” to exist. Other anti-Islamic depictions have sparked violence: In 2005, Danish embassies across the world were attacked after a Danish newspaper published cartoons of Mohammed.

On Sept. 26, Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsi, told the United Nations General Assembly that “Egypt respects freedom of expression — freedom of expression that is not used to incite hatred against anyone.”

“We expect from others, as they expect from us, that they respect our cultural specifics and religious references, and not impose concepts or cultures that are unacceptable to us,” said Morsi, as reported by Neil MacFarquar in The New York Times.

Similarly, Osama Siblani, a publisher for The Arab-American News, based in Dearborn, Mich., identified “a need for deterrent legal measures against those individuals or groups that want to damage relations between people, spread hate and incite violence,” as reported in The Detroit News.

However, Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations’ Secretary General, supported claims that “Innocence” must be protected under freedom of speech laws, though he also called it “a disgraceful act of insensitivity” when he spoke to the General Assembly on Sept. 25.

Later that day, President Obama also sympathized with reaction in the Arab world, but went on to argue that the video should be protected speech.

“We (protect the right to free speech) because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities,” Obama said, as reported by Helene Cooper in The New York Times.

Obama also noted that free speech affects him personally. “As president of our country, and commander-in-chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will defend their right to do so.”

Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney agreed: “Under the First Amendment, people are allowed to do what they feel they want to do,” he said, as reported on The Huffington Post.

In a Sept. 27 Legend survey, approximately 83 percent of the 50 Urban students who responded believed that that the “Innocence” has a right to exist. In addition, 72 percent thought free speech should never be limited.

The survey was anonymous, though students were encouraged to include comments, which evoked both sides of the free-speech issue.

“You can’t have positive free speech without allowing even the most wretched of opinions,” one student wrote.

Another disagreed: “Mocking the prophet should be treated like yelling “fire” in a movie theatre when there is no fire. Both are very dangerous things to do and should therefore be limited.”

Even in a country that has a First Amendment, expressing hate can be complicated. From the 1977 Supreme Court ruling permitting Nazis to march through the predominantly Jewish suburb of Skokie, Ill., to 2010, when the “South Park” television program depicted the prophet Mohammed hidden in a bear costume, Americans have  struggled to separate free speech from hate speech.

But in America, “we don’t need the First Amendment to celebrate motherhood or apple pie,” noted Greg Monfils, a history and English teacher at Urban.

“The First Amendment exists so that unpopular views will be stated, because people have a right to their opinions.”

UPDATE:

On Nov. 8, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the producer of the “Innocence of Muslims,” was sentenced to one year in prison by a federal district court judge in Los Angeles for violating his parole. Here is the story in The New York Times.