Freedom of Speech and Religion Collide

My latest for The National Interest, "Freedom of Speech and Religion in Egypt and Libya," has posted.

My latest for The National Interest, “Freedom of Speech and Religion in Egypt and Libya,” has posted.

The initial draft was submitted yesterday evening, in reaction to the bizarre condemnation by our Cairo embassy of “those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others,” and before the outrageous and fatal attack on our embassy in Benghazi. But, while the framing has changed, the takeaway remains the same:

Terry Jones’s bigotry is the hardest type of speech to defend. It has no obvious redeeming value and is specifically intended to be offensive. But we’re a country that recognizes the right of citizens to burn our flag in protest, understanding that the very fact that doing so outrages so many Americans demonstrates how powerful a form of speech it is.

The fact that the words of some backwoods Florida preacher with a tiny congregation can spark murder and mayhem in Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya is a powerful indictment of the immaturity of those civil societies. Islam has endured for more than a millennium, and its followers constitute more than a fifth of humanity; surely, it can withstand the insults of a half-wit.

Jones seems to delight in the fact that Islamists halfway around the world erupt in violent outrage at his provocations. That’s despicable. But we’re not responsible for the evil, illegal actions others might take in response to our freely expressing our thoughts. Even if they’re ill informed, half-baked, bigoted thoughts. If we allow the possible reaction of the most dogmatic, evil people who might hear the message to govern our expression, we don’t have freedom at all. It’s worse than a heckler’s veto; it’s a murderer’s veto.

That’s a far greater danger than hurting people’s feelings.

Another piece, commenting on Mitt Romney’s bizarre attempt to capitalize on the tragedy and what it says about his foreign policy in general, should be coming out later today.

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FILED UNDER: Islam, Published Elsewhere, Religion, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. C. Clavin says:

    I will defend Terry Jones’s right to be the absolute worst kind of racist xenophobic imbecile and pathetic example of a human….not to mention a Republican…to my dying breath.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    I agree that freedom of speech must be absolute. I agree that we can’t surrender our freedom because of threats.

    I also agree it would be a lot more fun to say those things if we were not defending the rights of a jackass.

  3. Rob in CT says:

    The fact that the words of some backwoods Florida preacher with a tiny congregation can spark murder and mayhem in Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya is a powerful indictment of the immaturity of those civil societies. Islam has endured for more than a millennium, and its followers constitute more than a fifth of humanity; surely, it can withstand the insults of a half-wit

    This is well-said.

    Confident people don’t get riled up when fools try to mock them. Insecure losers do.

    Jones is a B-grade, attention whore and jerk. The appropriate response to him is a snort of derision. Not violence.

  4. nitpicker says:

    A friend of a friend posted this on Facebook today: “These deaths are tragic, but, as an American, when I saw them tearing up that flag, I just wanted all Muslims to die.” So, make these swaps:

    American for Muslim
    tearing up that flag for insulting our religion
    Muslims for Americans

    …and the circle of a**hole is complete.

  5. DRE says:

    I have some mixed feelings about this. We don’t extend free speech to advocating, inciting, or threatening violence. We certainly condemn yelling “FIRE” in a crowded theater. And you can get arrested for joking about bombs in an airport. I don’t think that Terry Jones should be locked up, or even prevented from acting stupid, but I don’t see why we should object to the US Embassy saying that we believe in religious tolerance and condemn attempts to cause religious hatred. That seems to me to be a perfectly valid statement of our values.

  6. nitpicker says:

    In writing “Islam has endured for more than a millennium, and its followers constitute more than a fifth of humanity; surely, it can withstand the insults of a half-wit,” you seem to be suggesting all of Islam is at fault here. This was clearly a planned, politically-based attack by a few people trying to use anti-Americanism to their advantage. It’s different from the “Ground Zero Mosque” ranting only because it was violent. It’s different from southern reactionaries’ attacks on the Civil Rights movement in no way at all.

  7. Dean says:

    @michael reynolds: I also agree it would be a lot more fun to say those things if we were not defending the rights of a jackass.

    But isn’t defending the right of jackasses to say stupid things one of the essential elements of “Freedom of Speech?”

    Quite frankly, the Freedom of Speech should be a small sub-point to the whole story. The fact of the matter is we had two embassies stormed and three US citizens murdered. All the outrage and finger-pointing should be pointed only at those who committed the acts of violence at our embassies.

  8. mantis says:

    Should Terry Jones be a disgusting jackass? No. Should he have the freedom to be a disgusting jackass? Absolutely.

    Should we, as a nation of people, collectively shame his evil ass for what he has done and show that he does not represent us in any way? We sure should.

    Also, Romney is scum. He should apologize to the families of the dead and drop out of the race for embarrassing the United States the way he has. Anyone even considering putting that man in charge of our foreign policy should have his/her head examined.

  9. stonetools says:

    Jones is a B-grade, attention whore and jerk. The appropriate response to him is a snort of derision. Not violence.

    This is all well and good, but in the real world, we know that there are people and societies who ARE this insecure, and will respond with violence. The hard question is why, and who can we deal with them.

  10. nitpicker says:

    @Dean: You’re exactly right, Dean, and that’s why the statement that came out of the US embassy in Egypt–again, before the protests turned violent, rather than after, as Romney claims–said:

    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.

    In other words, yeah, this guy’s an a**hole, but we still believe in the “universal right of free speech.” It was pretty much dead on.

    And then it turned inexcusably violent.

  11. george says:

    @Dean:

    But isn’t defending the right of jackasses to say stupid things one of the essential elements of “Freedom of Speech?”

    I read Mike R’s point as being that easy to defend freedom of speech when its fun (ie its an opinion we agree with), but we have to do it even when its not fun.

  12. Again, from wikipedia:

    According to the Freedom Forum Organization, legal systems, and society at large, recognize limits on the freedom of speech, particularly when freedom of speech conflicts with other values or rights. Limitations to freedom of speech may follow the “harm principle” or the “offense principle”, for example in the case of pornography, religious belief or hate speech. Limitations to freedom of speech may occur through legal sanction or social disapprobation, or both.

    It is wrong, frankly Sarah Palin level analysis, to equate social disapprobation with legal sanction. That is to say “criticism of me strikes at my free speech.” There is absolutely no need to defend Jones or the movie if you believe in free speech law.

    Defend the law even as you say you don’t defend Jones’ use of it.

    That is what the Cairo embassy did, and it is not “bizarre” at all.

  13. I mean how much critical reading does it take to see that the Cairo embassy did not call for an end to free speech?

    They used their speech to speak for tolerance, and yes, to attack those who use speech as a goad to violence.

  14. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: The Obama administration apparently agrees with me on this one, having distanced themselves from the Embassy statement. Our government has zero basis for condemning speech for its content.

  15. DRS says:

    I’m going to quote Sullivan here, although I’ve seen the same sentiments on other blogs, since his is the most succinct:

    Of course, sitting in my blogging chair on the Cape, I can demand as radical a defense of blasphemy and hate speech as Romney can. But I was not inside an embassy in a foreign country as mob violence was building outside and as the US government was being conflated entirely with a bigoted anti-Muslim fanatic. And practically speaking, the embassy was trying to calm a situation, not inflame it. And diplomacy in the real world, where American lives are at stake, can necessitate such frustrating but necessary nuances.

    Disagree, fine. But it’s damn easy to sit over here and get all big-chesty about standing up for America’s ideals when it’s not our butt on the front line. Krauthammer says he would have told the mob to go to hell – like that would have worked.

    And it’s not like anything associated with Terry Jones was going to be the equivalent of a National Geographic documentary. According to The New York Post (hardly a hotbed of limp-wristed appeasers) http://www.nypost.com/p/news/national/film_worst_piece_of_crap_ever_Wv9KvQEFzkMrMrEG0is6EM

    Not only is the depiction of Mohammed as a sex-mad killer enough to enrage Muslims, but every aspect of this production is so amateurish that nobody in their right mind would let him within 500 yards of movie equipment. the acting is amateurish, the dialogue is badly dubbed, and it’s technically laughable on every level. — the photography, sound recording, makeup, special effects, costumes and especially the script, dialogue and direction.The desert backdrops wouldn’t pass muster in the photo studio at a Damascus department store…On a scale of one to four stars, I’d give it a minus 10. Burn this movie.

    Personally, I agree with this from Ambinder’s column in The Week:

    I will end on a tweet from a former FBI counter-terrorism agent, David Gomez, whose avatar is @AllThingsHLS: “When innocent people die because of what you say, it’s time to man up. Terry Jones go to Benghazi and defend your film!”

  16. PD Shaw says:

    I think it will be very interesting to see how the Egyptian government responds to this. Islam is a religion that exists in large part as a legal code. The prohibition against apostasy, which the Rev. Jones clearly engaged in, but not the Americans abroad, is something a legal body of competent jurisdiction could rule on. Over the years, certain Muslims, like the Muslim Brotherhood, have had to address the problem of governments that lack the legitimacy to make such rulings, either because the government is secular or corrupt. From within these concerns, the innovation developed that certain religious leaders might be able to make the necessary rulings, though the Fatwa against Rushdie failed even these relaxed standards. What is happening here?

    Where was the legal proceeding against the men murdered or attempted to be murdered?
    By what legal principle were they adjudged apostates?
    Are the governments of Egypt and Libya legitimate Islamic governments, or are they secular and corrupt?

  17. stonetools says:

    James Joyner’s statement is a correct, but facile, defense of freedom of speech, easily made from behind a computer in Washington, DC. Its a different situation when you are sitting in an embassy surrounded by 2,000 screaming militants who don’t give a damn about John Locke.Thats why I object to the characterization of the Embassy statement as some sort of apology.
    Here are tougher issues:

    Do you let You Tube continue to broadcast this video around the world, where you know it will be used to foment violence and murder?
    If you can’t shout ” Fire ” in a crowded theater, can you shout “Mohammad is a child abusing goatf^&*er” on the Internet?
    How do you deal with societies where masses of people firmly believe that you can attack embassies and murder foreigners if someone , somewhere, in your country says something offensive against their religion?

  18. michael reynolds says:

    Actually, what the embassy was obviously trying to do was to calm a bunch of lunatics who they thought might just decide to storm their embassy. I think sitting around 5000 miles away and parsing the words of some scared embassy flack is pretty easy work. “Oh, you shouldn’t have used that semi-colon when you were writing this. Shivering in fear under your desk.”

  19. PJ says:

    @James Joyner:

    Our government has zero basis for condemning speech for its content.

    Does it matter if the person speaking is a US citizen or not?

  20. PD Shaw says:

    @DRE: “We don’t extend free speech to advocating, inciting, or threatening violence”

    Actually, we do. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brandenburg v. Ohio that a statute outlawing advocacy of violence was Unconstitutional.

    What theoretically the government can try to proscribe is speech that incites “imminent lawless action.” Fighting words. I’m standing in front of you, yelling obscenities about your mother, spittle flying, my fingers pointing, and you are likely to respond imminently with a punch to my face. The animal parts of your brain have taken over, you can’t reason only react.

  21. nitpicker says:

    “We understood why many Muslims found the cartoons offensive. We found, we talked about the fact that we found, on Friday, the cartoons offensive, but we also, uh spoke out very clearly in support of freedom of the press.” – Sean McCormack, Bush administration State Department spokesman.

  22. DRE says:

    @James Joyner:
    The Administration has distanced itself from the statement in the context of the violence that occurred, which is obviously the greater issue. Perhaps they have decided, (or believed in the first place) that it was not the best policy decision in the circumstances. But I still believe that the initial statement was perfectly appropriate. The statement was not condemning any specific speech for its content; it was a statement of principle that we, as a society believe in religious tolerance, despite was some individual exercising his free speech said. And we also condemn the intolerance reflected in that speech. Would you object if the US Embassy in Israel condemned a movie that was based on denying the holocaust, if said movie was being treated as representing US views? The Embassy has no governing role in the US, and its statements have no impact on free speech in the US. Its job is to interact with another society, and a large part of that is to increase understanding of our society.

  23. rudderpedals says:

    @DRE: We certainly condemn yelling “FIRE” in a crowded theater.

    Unless the theater actually is on fire, then we praise them. Bozo Jones would claim the theater is on fire. You can see where this is headed, directly to the string of cases PD Shaw pointed to.

    But man I need a shower after sticking up for this bozo hate peddler.

  24. Scott says:

    I guess this is a necessary discussion; however, on a tangential note, I fear that this freedom will cause a lot more death and destruction. The makers of the film (we don’t know who they are) are rumored to have in their midst Coptic Christians. Whether true or not, the Egyptian government will have a much greater challenge: Protecting a minority of about 10% of their population from a pogrom fromt he majority Islamic population,.

  25. DRE says:

    @PD Shaw: Actually, we do. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brandenburg v. Ohio that a statute outlawing advocacy of violence was Unconstitutional.

    Advocating violence in a theoretical way, with no expectation of “imminent lawless action” is protected but standing in front of angry mod and urging them to act on their anger is not. In fact there are many ways of getting on the wrong side of this. Laying out the plan for illegal activity of any type, and telling someone else to do it, makes you complicit in the actions and therefore not protected by free speech rights.
    I am not arguing that making offensive movies, even ones that could be treated as “fighting words” should be prohibited. But that is very different than saying that the government should never condemn such speech or say that we abhor it.

  26. nitpicker says:

    Look, none of this matters, since Romney’s foreign policy advisor (!?) has already told us how foreign policy is just a “distraction” anyway.

  27. @James Joyner:

    To me it’s pretty simple.

    Free speech and religious tolerance are two of our values.

    One does not actually deny the other.

    (And I think both Clinton and Obama speeches today hold both values.)

  28. On the other hand, defending Jones in any way does deny religious tolerance.

  29. Spartacus says:

    James wrote: “the bizarre condemnation by our Cairo embassy of “those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others,”

    This is not a freedom of speech issue. The tweet from the embassy is a condemnation of speech; it is not a revocation of it. No one has argued Terry Jones can’t make the film he’s made, but people (including government employees) are free to criticize or condemn that film. That’s what the tweet did.

    Secondly, there is no right to free speech in Egypt so why the suggestion that Mr. Jones’ right to free speech is at risk. He is totally free to continue to make films like that, but there will be consequences apparently. The outrage here seems a little ironic since there’s probably not a week that goes by when someone in this country doesn’t get killed for saying or doing something that another person didn’t like. It’s horrible and absolutely wrong, but it’s neither shocking nor something that should tarnish an entire people or religion.

  30. DRE says:

    @rudderpedals: But man I need a shower after sticking up for this bozo hate peddler.

    There is no need to stick up for him in responding to me, since I have not said anything about limiting his rights. I am sticking up for the person in the US Embassy in Egypt who said that the US believes in relegious tolerance, and condemns the incitement of religious hatred. As a policy or diplomatic matter there is room for debate, but I see no problem with the Emassy making such statements.

  31. Dave Schuler says:

    @PD Shaw:

    The operative word there is “theoretical”. IIRC the Supreme Court has never ruled on the “fighting words principle”.

  32. Moosebreath says:

    @Spartacus:

    “The tweet from the embassy is a condemnation of speech; it is not a revocation of it.”

    If the condemnation is by the government (which this is not really, in light of the disavowal of it by the Obama Administration), the two are very closely linked.

  33. @Moosebreath:

    I think the Obama administration played some defensive politics. It may come back to haunt them, or it may be lost in the bigger story.

    Let’s be straight. There was no “apology” and there was no “disavowal.”

    What there was was a condemnation of religious intolerance, and then a statement that the condemnation was not approved.

  34. rudderpedals says:

    @DRE:It just sucks that Jones winds up on the good guy’s side even though his not so good works seem to have sparked the Cairo riot. I agree with you on everything else you wrote. If I were staffed overseas I’d be a more worried today than I was two days ago about having my life turned into a campaign chew toy. All else pales in comparison to the suckage that is Mr. Romney’s drunkards-walk approach to foreign policy.

  35. Moosebreath says:

    @john personna:

    I didn’t say there was an apology. And I’m not sure there is a significant difference between a “condemnation of religious intolerance” (as you said) and a condemnation of speech where the speech was being condemned as religously intolerant (as I referred to).

  36. @Moosebreath:

    On the apology bit I was really speaking to wider coverage. It’s being seen thus:

    Obama administration disavows Cairo apology

    If we come out of this unable to criticized the likes of Jones, that will be a real loss of American values. Jones will have won our partnership.

  37. KariQ says:

    Okay, I’m afraid I need this explained to me, preferably slowly and clearly in small words: What’s wrong with the statement the embassy released?

    Really, I don’t get it. It reads to me like someone denouncing an unhinged attack on the religion of a large number of passionate believers. It didn’t call for restriction of free speech, unless I’ve completely lost the ability to read. I do not understand why you, James, and a lot of other people who seem to be sincere and not motivated by politics, found the message offensive. What’s wrong with it?

  38. Greg says:

    This is my main issue with conservatives they only look at the world in their own view. Alot of people in the region think that the U.S. and the west is out to get them due to are own not so glorious past in the region . So we can talk about free speech all want but we have to understand people are cynical of us and culture

  39. stonetools says:

    To be honest, I’m a bit disappointed as to Joyner’s initial post. Do Jones and company have a constitutional right to make and promote this offensive movie, and should the US government defend this right? Of course, Captain Obvious , and taken in context, this is what every US Government statement did, some more clearly than others.
    This should have been the start, not the end, of the analysis. Here are tougher issues:

    1. Should the USA go on to make this a teaching moment by giving speeches explaining free speech rights to those countries?
    2.What, if anything, should the US government say to YouTube?
    3. Should we respond with a show of force, ie. flying marines into Libya And Egypt and setting up a defensive perimeter?
    4. Should we withdraw our embassies from those countries, citing the failure of the host countries to adequately protect our institutions?
    5.Should we stop processing visa requests from those countries or otherwise cut back on operations?
    6.Should we cut aid to these countries?
    7. What if any responsibilities do we have to the Coptic minority in Egypt that might be targeted for reprisal by the Salafis in Egypt?

    Again, I’d like to see discussions on these tougher issues. This is a good starter post-but its only a start.

  40. @KariQ:

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with the statement, but I don’t think the Obama administration wants to explain the nuances of it, especially today.

    Tactically, they can just say it was “unapproved” and then leave Romney out there looking bad with his attack.

  41. Rjgus says:

    With reference to the comment about “the immaturity of those civil societies” (meaning Lybia); has anyone thought that the violence there was ordered or initiated by the “Dictators” of those countries? I think that most Muslims are mature!

  42. Spartacus says:

    @Moosebreath:

    “If the condemnation is by the government (which this is not really, in light of the disavowal of it by the Obama Administration), the two are very closely linked.”

    I fail to see how a condemnation of speech by the government is in anyway “closely linked” to a revocation of speech.

    Secondly, Government employees condemn speech all the time. Many of them even try to pass laws that would ban certain types of speech. So the notion that fearful embassy employees issuing a message condemning a bigoted inflammatory film somehow infringes someone’s free speech or is “closely linked” to infringing free speech simply does not fly.

  43. PD Shaw says:

    @Dave Schuler: “The operative word there is “theoretical”. IIRC the Supreme Court has never ruled on the “fighting words principle”. ”

    I believe that’s right. I assume most true fighting words cases evolve quickly into assault and batteries and are charged as such. So long as imminence is an element, its hard to see how the government could take action between the time of the utterance and violent response.

  44. Moosebreath says:

    @Spartacus:

    I am referring to the embassy’s statement “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

    Saying that speech cannot be made if it injures other people’s sensitivities means that speech is not free. And if that were a position taken by the government (with the coercive power of the state behind it), then it is to some extent revoking the free speech rights of the people.

  45. @Moosebreath:

    Saying “we reject” is not saying “we ban” either.

  46. Clanton says:

    Are we sending foreign aid to those countries? If so, it needs to be stopped immediately.

  47. OzarkHillbilly says:

    FREEDOM!!!

    You know what? Our words have consequences. As long as people will not own up to the consequences of their words, I reserve the RIGHT to vilify them for their words….

  48. Spartacus says:

    @Moosebreath:

    “Saying that speech cannot be made if it injures other people’s sensitivities means that speech is not free.”

    “Rejecting the actions” of those who “abuse the freedom” of speech does not seem to mean that the freedom to speak no longer exists. In fact, it seems to mean the exact opposite: one has the freedom to speak and one can abuse that freedom.

    When that freedom has been abused by saying things that are likely to lead to substantial harm, the responsible thing to do is to use very strong words to condemn, reject and take whatever other steps that are legally permissible to deter the abuse of that freedom. No one has pointed to any action by any government employee to take steps that are not legally permissible when criticizing Terry Jones.

    I’m not sure we’re disagreeing all that much unless you’re arguing that government employees do not have the right to criticize, condemn or reject with words the actions of those who abuse their freedom of speech.

  49. bill says:

    well, to a lot of people “freedom of speech” is only free if you agree with it. those wacky muslims don’t need a reason to start killing anyone for anything. America is different, usually.

  50. Pylon says:

    What Spartacus said. One can criticize speech without infringing on the right. Which is IMHO what happened here. In fact, there is an explicit acknowledgement of the right contained in the statement.

  51. Dazedandconfused says:

    @Pylon:

    I agree with that. James has a great point but it’s not in conflict with the embassy’s statement. He also deplores those who “abuse the right of free speech” in the case of that preacher. Criticism is not denial of speech.

    However, we used to have dueling here, and not all that long ago. My quibble is with the “universal” claim to free speech. We, the USA, are hardly the universe. In fact we are a rarity, almost unique, in our laws on “free speech”. Britain still has some heresy laws. Most “civilized” nations carry laws against holocaust denial.

    The Muslims have a different attitude towards religion, one comparable to what we had not all that long ago. It won’t change quickly, I promise ya that. If we are going to “show them the way” we must be civilized as well, and that includes not going out of our way to offend. In the same way they do not know the difference between it being on Youtube and being a major movie, they do not understand how a government could be barred from shutting it down.

    The Cairo embassy got a bit out of hand. It will settle down. Libya appears to have been a prepared hit.

  52. Moosebreath says:

    @john personna:

    The words I have the biggest problem (for the same reasons both James and Michael Reynolds have in other threads) are “abuse of free speech”.

    @Spartacus:

    “I’m not sure we’re disagreeing all that much unless you’re arguing that government employees do not have the right to criticize, condemn or reject with words the actions of those who abuse their freedom of speech.”

    In private capacities, no. But if the government, acting as the government, were to choose which speech to condemn based upon its contents, yes, I have a problem with that.

  53. nitpicker says:

    Trying to find your column where you said the Obama White House had “zero basis” for calling Helen Thomas’ remarks about Jews leaving Israel “offensive and reprehensible.” Can’t find it, James. Please point me there?

  54. James Joyner says:

    @nitpicker: As noted elsewhere in these discussions, I hold statements by politicians to a different standards than statements by our embassies. I’m not sure I noted Obama’s comments about the matter at the time, although I did defend Thomas’ right to utter nutty crap and questioned the piling on.