Four American died in a Libyan consulate last week as a result of a highly offensive video found on YouTube. The existence of this video which depicts the prophet Mohammad in a scandalous way, was intentionally spread to Muslim media outlets as a way to incite some form of protest, or even violence by religious extremists from our country. The entire subject has cracked open a debate about the Internet, the First Amendment right to free speech and the obligations of governments to keep people safe.
It is a very precarious dilemma. At play are American laws versus international laws, cultural values of our ideals and international religious sensitivities, the interplay of governmental moral imperatives to shut such outlets down that incites violence through hate and the rights of private organizations to promote their product without interference from government control. Equally vexing is to what degree this video played in these violent outbursts. Was the existence of the video a true spark of religious outrage or was it a convenient tool for extremists to perform acts of terrorism?
Nobody argues that YouTube, owned by Google, has a right to post whatever video-trash it wants as a private enterprise, and more importantly, as an exercise of the video producer’s first amendment right of free speech. In fact, Google investigated this case and determined that the video “is clearly within our guidelines and so [it] will stay on YouTube.”
However, should Google’s policy of censorship avoidance end at our American Judeo-Christian borders when the internet is exposed to an international and multi-cultural world? Enter, one billion Muslims worldwide.
Most Muslim countries are very restrictive in what may be disseminated in media outlets. Pornography or movies depicting nudity or violence are non-existent. Anything religiously insensitive might result in capital punishment. So, when this video, entitled Innocence of Muslims is seen overseas, combined with the thought that anything goes in American cinema, the prevailing thought is that Americans everywhere are watching this video on TV in prime time, eating popcorn and laughing at their spiritual leader. In response, they took to the streets…
Or did they? There is no evidence that in Libya there was a protest that gave way to an insurrection and then a riot. There is evidence, however, that this was a planned terrorist attack and the video was a happenstance reason for an assassination of two American diplomats and two security personnel. As a prominent morning TV pundit shouted this week: “They don’t hate us for our freedom. They just hate us. They don’t hate us for our government. They just hate us. They don’t hate us for our pluralist society, THEY JUST HATE US….”
Nevertheless, the riots in Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and Afghanistan are reason enough not to doubt the sincerity of the religious outrage sparked by this video. But it does further complicate reading motivation into Muslims worldwide.
Should this video have been censored from YouTube? Absolutely not. Google has established that it has a policy for appropriateness and it has followed this policy in a sensible approach after a full internal investigation. Google’s further action, discussed below, further demonstrates its sensitivities to other religious countries.
What about the First Amendment rights of the video producer? Despite being a craven individual, I believe censoring his video would be a violation of his first amendment right to free speech. It is not a treasonous video – there’s no indication of an attempt to violate allegiances to our government. It may border on religious sedition – to stir up rebellion against an established order. But sedition laws are established to protect our homeland, not religions. Does it amount to “incite to riot” – like yelling “Fire” in a crowded movie theatre? No, there is no immediacy to the action to cause imminent harm.
In short, our Supreme Court has been resolute to always err on the side of an individual’s free speech since “freedom” is what defines our Constitution and the very foundation of our Country.
Walking the fine line of preserving free speech locally yet reducing further risk of loss of life globally, Google took the action(perhaps ineffectively at this late date) of restricting the video from Libya and Egypt. As we evolve from an internet assisted society to an internet dominated society, these moral, legal and religious entanglements will only get more complicated, especially as geographical borders give away to world wide issues. World Wide Web, indeed.