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:
- 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.
- 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.
But they sent a terrible message.
To American communications firms, they sent the message that airing certain kinds of speech is going to attract the attention of federal officials, who'd rather they didn't. The message to citizens: Certain kinds of political speech, while protected by the First Amendment, will trigger federal investigations into whether there's any legal reason you can be arrested. And the message to illiberal Muslims: Speech offensive to you is protected by the First Amendment, but the United States government can totally lean on private companies to make them harder to access on the Internet, and investigate the speaker to see if he's broken any laws, so next time you're upset best to start demanding that those actions be taken. Those are foolish messages to send.