The Collision Between Blasphemy and the 1st Amendment

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A Twitter exchange with Laura Rozen, the perspicacious journalist, and Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, about blasphemy and free speech got me thinking about what an appropriate, off-the-shelf U.S. government response to these sorts of terrible incidents should be. The conversation started when Laura tweeted: "'Sam Bacile' and whoever part of this wretched incitement project better get a good attorney and will be exposed." (I agree with Laura's insinuation -- suggested by the scare quotes around Sam Bacile's name -- that this might not be a real name or real person. I don't agree with the notion that this murderous crowd was organically and spontaneously incited by the film. Often the anti-blasphemy crowd is incited by political extremists looking for a way to attack Western targets.)

I tweeted back, "Disgusting movie, but not the point: We have freedom of speech in America." To which Neera replied, "But as my conserv(ative) friends often say, freedom without responsibility is chaos. Many things that are legal are wrong."

I responded: "You're saying in essence it's wrong for a person protected by the first amendment to express an opinion you don't like." Neera's reply: "No, obviously not. That's a straw man. I'm saying just (because) something is legal, doesn't make it right, eg adultery."

At that point, I thought it best not to try to squeeze a response into a tweet, but we here at Goldblog are multi-platformational, and so here is a longer response: Just as conservative Muslims have as a core principle the protection of the Prophet Muhammad and God from insult, we Americans have a core principle: Freedom of speech. As Stephen Marche has pointed out, (also in a tweet): "We fought for three hundred years for the right to blasphemy. We called that fight the enlightenment."

 I think that the only response of the U.S. government in these cases should be the following: "A private citizen has expressed a controversial view. If you disagree with that view, please take it up with him. The only responsibility the U.S. government has in these cases is to uphold the person's right to free speech. Free speech is a sacred principle of our culture and civilization." I think Neera, as an ex-Administration official, ought to say that, too. She obviously is a free speech advocate as well, but on the day after four Americans were murdered because someone else in America exercised his right to free speech, I think Americans ought to focus their attention on this heinous assault on freedom, and not on the content of an absurd YouTube video.

It's a losing game for the U.S. to condemn someone's opinion because a violent mob objects to that opinion for practical reasons, as well. Such condemnation only inflames the mob, which is being told, in essence, that its objections are correct. There has to be room in the modern world for people to critique -- even viciously critique -- other people's religious beliefs, and all other sorts of beliefs. The goal of the mob is to bring us back to the dark ages. The best way to resist them is to stand up militantly for our sacred principles.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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