Free speech deserves protection in face of violence

September 20, 2012

Since the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi resulted in the deaths of four U.S. citizens, two major threads of discussion have emerged. Both revolve around the man responsible for the anti-Islamic film, “Innocence of Muslims,” that allegedly offended the Libyan assailants — and was thus enemy number one in their attack scheme. The first discourse strives to discover the director of this epic testament to free speech. Was he Coptic Christian Nakoula Basseley Nakoula? Pornographer Alan Roberts? Or the mysterious Sam Bacile? From this heated investigation an even more interesting debate arose, which a University of Pennsylvania religion professor, Anthea Butler began, by published a bold statement in USA Today defending her now infamous tweet : “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 … ”

Later, she tweeted: “And people do [sic] to jail for speech. First Amendment doesn’t cover EVERYTHING a PERSON says.”

In a sound argument, there must be truth and validity — the correctness of each premise and a sensible inference connecting the premises to the conclusion. There are two premises in our Libya scenario: one, the filmmaker inflamed Libyan Muslims. And two, Libyans killed Americans.

There is no rational conclusion. Butler’s bizarre and sporadic attempt to connect a director’s portrayal of Islam as a cancer to the murder of innocent Americans is an example of unsound deductive reasoning, a flaky application of the transitive property to Constitutional Law. And yet, she has gathered a fervent virtual community in support of throwing the director behind bars.

In her article, Butler first accuses the filmmaker of committing libel — or so it seems. Apparently, the man’s critique of Muhammad was filled with “ludicrous and historically inaccurate scenes to incite and inflame viewers.” Then, two sentences later she says the director’s motives “indirectly and inadvertently inflamed people half a world away” thereby annihilating what would have otherwise been a strong argument against the filmmaker.

In a phone interview with The Wall Street Journal, the movie’s creator said his piece was “a political effort to call attention to the hypocrisies of Islam.”

Butler said, “There should be consequences for putting American lives at risk” — but what constitutes “putting?”

Deeply ingrained in Supreme Court precedence is the unanimous opinion in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) that free speech is protected as long as it doesn’t provoke direct “imminent lawless action.” By suggesting that the director did not intend to cause harm, Butler certainly abandons the libel allegation while simultaneously breaking the backbone of her other argument — the man should be prosecuted for putting the lives of Americans in danger. This filmmaker did not participate in the attacks and, as Butler makes clear, did not intend for them to occur, especially not directly.

And then, in a final attempt to justify herself, Butler launches into a sermon about how “other countries and cultures do not have to understand or respect our right” to free speech. What do foreign interpretations of American law have to do with its domestic application? The interpretation of our Constitution never has and never should be subject to the perceptions of radicals, American or not.

Perhaps Butler should stick to teaching religion and not stick her nose into criminal and constitutional law. The repercussions of having free speech are sometimes serious and violent — the attacks in Benghazi are no exception. But a larger problem remains: A coexistence of ignorance and enlightenment is the undercurrent of civil liberties. You cannot sue for committing libel against a dead prophet.

Siddhi Sundar is a contributing columnist. Email him at opinion@nyunews.com.

Print Friendly