A crude U.S.-produced movie that denigrates Islam and the Prophet Mohammed set off a firestorm of anti-American protest in Cairo and then in the Libyan city of Benghazi, where four U.S. diplomats were killed trying to flee their besieged consulate in the hours that followed.
Deeply insulting to Muslims, with its cartoonish portrayal of the Prophet as a drunk and womanizer, the film leaps the boundaries of both taste and tolerance. But its dissemination is not illegal.
Hate speech, even vile, provocative and blasphemous vitriol, is well protected in the United States. So Nazis can march, the Ku Klux Klan can spout supremacist doggerel, a clique of oddball Baptists can rejoice over the killing of U.S. soldiers as their families bury them and a filmmaker can scurrilously lampoon the Prophet Mohammed.
Unlike in most Western countries – including Canada – where extreme forms of "hate speech" are outlawed, the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled that the Constitution's First Amendment, which enshrines the right of free speech, includes protecting some very odious stuff.
"If we do not come to the defence of the free-speech rights of the most unpopular among us, even if their views are antithetical to the very freedom the First Amendment stands for, then no one's liberty will be secure," says the American Civil Liberties Union, a group that has championed the rights of everyone from Holocaust deniers to white supremacists in often unpopular but successful cases to defend and broaden First Amendment rights.
Very little isn't covered. Exceptions are few, and narrow, such as the provoking of public disorder that would come from shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre or making direct threats of immediate violence.
Blasphemy – including portraying the Prophet Mohammed as a drunken, womanizer and child abuser, aped by stupid and deranged follower – is protected.
In its most recent ruling – upholding the right of hateful protest at military funerals by a group carrying signs that said "God hates Fags" – Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote last year that free speech "can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and – as it did here – inflict great pain. … We cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker."
Pain and violent retribution, as erupted this week in Egypt and Libya, may spread across the Muslim world as it did in reaction to 2005 caricatures of the Prophet in a Danish newspaper. In 2010 and 2011, Florida pastor Terry Jones's boast that he would burn a Koran provoked deadly riots worldwide after the threat raced across the Internet. His act was also protected by the First Amendment.
Although made more than a year ago, the latest anti-Islam film, Innocence of Muslims, was mostly ignored – and shown only once in its entirety to a mostly empty theatre – until an Arabic translation of the 14-minute preview appeared on YouTube earlier this month. It was Pastor Jones who uploaded it.