Free speech, religion clash over anti-Muslim film
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. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)
CERRITOS, Calif. (AP) — 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.
Kashmiri Muslim protesters burn an effigy representing the United States as they shout slogans during a protest in Srinagar, India, Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012. The protest was held against an anti-Islam film called "Innocence of Muslims" that ridicules Islam's Prophet Muhammad. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)
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.