Offensive Speech and the Danger of Granting the Heckler's Veto

Should diplomats denounce anti-Islamic films? That's a hard question. But seeing how the Obama Administration has erred is easy.

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A trampled American flag lays on the ground at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. (Reuters)

If a dozen French-Algerians gathered in Paris next year on Easter Sunday, erected side-by-side crucifixes painted red, white, and blue, flew a remote-control plane into them to evoke the 9/11 attacks, and afterward gave a press conference about how American Christians are filth who orchestrated the attack on the Twin Towers as a pretext for a Crusade-like campaign against Muslims, I wouldn't want the organizers of the protest arrested or charged with a crime. I wouldn't want them harassed by police either, being a partisan of free-speech rights, though I can't imagine that American conservatives would be bothered if French police questioned them.

(Am I wrong, conservatives?)

I myself wouldn't be bothered if the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., released a statement saying, "Although the right to free speech is inalienable, the insensitive jerks who conducted that anti-American protest on the Champ de Mars yesterday don't reflect the beliefs of the French government, or the vast majority of French people." Those conciliatory words would be accurate. It might still be a bad idea to release a statement like that. Once French diplomats establish the precedent that they render value judgments about the speech of French citizens, they might be pressured to do so in instances when the truth would not in fact prove conciliatory.

Diplomatic statements of regret are nevertheless compatible with free speech.

The anti-Islam film that has purportedly sparked riots in various Muslim countries brings these hypotheticals to mind. The guy who made the film has a legal and human right to put forth his message. American diplomats wouldn't violate it by saying, "That anti-Islam movie is messed up. In the U.S., where people are free to say whatever they want, that right is sometimes used by folks who say nasty things about Christians, Jews, minority groups, President Obama and his family, or in this case, Muslims. American law protects the rights of all those people, and we wouldn't want a leader so powerful that he could stop citizens from saying things he didn't like. The president, his colleagues in government, and countless Americans often vehemently disagree with what is said by American citizens, as they do in this case. Statements made about Muslims in that movie in no way reflect the official position of the United States."

Again, just because a statement is consistent with the First Amendment doesn't mean it should be issued. The words I've sketched out above are useful insofar as they are accurate, articulate American values, and conciliate in the fashion that diplomats understandably do in many situations.

The downside is the precedent they establish. The United States doesn't want to create the expectation that its diplomats are going to distance themselves from everything an American says that offends Muslims, or any other group; and there will be times when something that offends is in fact true. Perhaps it would be best if the U.S. government played a longer game, avoiding conciliatory statements even when the immediate cost-benefit analysis seems to recommend them, so that we can credibly say, in any instance, "Look, the U.S. government doesn't evaluate the words of its citizens, which has never implied that it agrees with their message."

Either of these approaches seems defensible to me, and had the Obama Administration contented itself with one of them I'd have been deferential in giving its members the benefit of the doubt.

But I think they've erred in two ways:

  1. They asked Google to look into whether the film violated YouTube's terms of service -- in other words, they inquired whether a private company would make it harder to find the film on the Internet.
  2. The FBI brought the filmmaker, who was on probation, into a police station for questioning, and began investigating whether he has done anything that would enable him to be rearrested and jailed for violating the terms of his probation.

In both instances, the Obama Administration acted within the law.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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