In defense of the right to offend

REUTERS Photographers take pictures outside the home of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who has been linked by news organizations to the … Continued


Photographers take pictures outside the home of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who has been linked by news organizations to the production of the controversial video, “Innocence of Muslims”, in Cerritos, Calif. on Sept. 14, 2012. The Coptic bishop for Los Angeles, Bishop Serapion, told Reuters that Nakoula called him, denying any link to the film and saying he had been a victim of mistaken identity by the media.

Extremists of all stripes are having a field day.

Loony rabble-rousers at home – the people behind “Innocence of Muslims,” the now infamous film insulting the prophet Muhammad – have succeeded in giving loony rabble-rousers abroad a golden opportunity to promote violence in the name of their own sick, twisted vision of Islam and the world.

The filmmakers join the ranks of Terry Jones, Fred Phelps and other American extremists who will say and do anything to make headlines and provoke outrage.

But however vile the filmmakers’ motives and however odious their speech, we must defend the indefensible by upholding their right to freedom of expression.

Needless to say, much of the world doesn’t agree.

From the president of Egypt (who is calling for the makers of the film to be punished) to some pundits in Europe (who are asking once again why Americans tolerate hate speech), the American commitment to robust free speech is being widely questioned and debated.

Even in the land of the free, protecting the right to offend is an increasingly tough sell. A disturbing 43 percent of Americans do not think people should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups, according to a 2009 survey conducted by the First Amendment Center.

The U.S. Supreme Court does, of course, allow some restrictions on speech under the First Amendment, including speech intended to incite imminent violence. But this film doesn’t meet that test.

Although the filmmakers surely knew that their film would provoke angry protests (and no doubt that was part of their intent), they aren’t responsible for radical groups halfway around the world using the film as an excuse to kill American officials and attack Western embassies.

If the United States were to react to this violence by attempting to censor speech that deeply offends religions (as in some European countries) or speech that is blasphemous (as in some Muslim majority countries), Americans would forfeit the right to freedom of speech and religion.

Once government has the power to punish speech deemed “offensive” or “hateful,” the First Amendment is effectively repealed and no one’s speech is safe from prosecution and no one’s religion is safe from governmental interference.

Some religious and political leaders in Europe and the Arab world counter the American defense of the right to offend by claiming that “Innocence of Muslims” and other expression insulting religion violates what they call “religious freedom.”

In this alternate universe, freedom of religion is defined as freedom from offense. Interpreted this way, religious freedom gives religious leaders the right to determine when speech is sufficiently offensive to warrant government action. And the state itself would be empowered to pass judgment on films, television shows, books, speeches and sermons that cross the state-determined threshold of what is and is not acceptable to say about religion.

Religious liberty as freedom from offense would be the death knell of authentic religious liberty, as the U.S. Supreme Court made clear in Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940), a landmark case defining free exercise of religion under the First Amendment.

In that case, Jesse Cantwell, a Jehovah’s Witness, played a record with a strongly anti-Catholic message in a heavily Catholic neighborhood. Two men who heard the record called the police and had him arrested for “disturbing the peace” and “incitement to riot.”

A unanimous court upheld the right of Cantwell to proclaim his message, noting that “the tenets of one man may seem the rankest error to his neighbor.” To persuade others, people sometimes resort “to exaggeration, to vilification of men who have been, or are, prominent in church or state, and even to false statement.”

But the court reasoned, “in spite of the probability of excesses and abuses, these liberties are, in the long view, essential to enlightened opinion and right conduct on the part of citizens of a democracy.”

In other words, a free marketplace of ideas about religion – including ideas many find wrong or repulsive – is a necessary condition for ensuring that people are free to pursue the truth.

To any American tempted to use the engine of government to protect religion from offense or defamation, remember this: State power that shields your religion today can be used to censor your religion tomorrow. What is blasphemous to one is religious conviction to another.

The greatest threat to a free society lies in giving government the authority to determine who is right.

Charles C. Haynes

is senior scholar at the

Freedom Forum First Amendment Center

and director of the

Religious Freedom Education Project

at the


in Washington.

Written by

  • mld83dc

    Having the right to free speech doesn’t negate a responsibility to consequences of our speech. I seriously doubt public sentiment would be so understanding if a group of Muslims decided to organize a march at Ground Zero saying “America brought this on itself”. People have a responsibility to use words intelligently and towards the progress of debates and discussion, as well as a responsibility to temper their anger and express it constructively.

  • davebarry109

    Absolutely right. About time someone defended free speech. What ever happended to the old saying, “I may detest what you have to say but will defend to my death your right to say it’?

  • MarsHelper

    Sure people may get mad at that, i would, but i wiuld still defend their right to express that opinion and this government would as well. Free speech is one of the truly great aspects about this country. The day we start to curtail idiots shooting their mouths off is the day this country and what it stands for no longer exists.

  • MarsHelper

    While i agree with the author’s intent and conclusions in the above article, i strongly disagree with his implied conclusions about Islam.
    To say “…their own sick, twisted vision of Islam…” shows a lack of understanding about the religion of “peace”. (Full disclosure: i have not seen the video).
    If the people who made the video say that Islam is a religion of hatred, exclusionism and violent supression, they are correct. Islam is fairly clear through tge Koran: it demands the entire world bow to their “prophet” or die (ultimately).

  • wanderer3

    In defense of the right to not be murdered when you are offended

  • boblesch

    maybe religions need to just keep their dogma and ideology to themselves.

  • MarsHelper

    They wouldn’t be religions then as the spreading of the dogma is inherent in almost every religion i know of.
    Plus, i think it enhances humanity to have these kinds of conflicts.

  • mqpham

    There are plenty of YouTube videos of Muslims celebrating on 9/11. Anyone rioting about those?

  • stupaplinth

    Don’t always believe what’s credited to celebrating 9/11, mqpham. Be analytical. I know US video taped Iranian protests and gave it a story that was anything but truthful. We had our own freedom of speech issues here in the Westboro Baptist Church, remember?

  • stupaplinth

    Remember Westboro Baptist Church? As repugnant as their message is, it’s free speech.

  • stupaplinth

    I also wonder if Islam might be reformed to change their viewpoint to be more conducive to a global community, much like the Catholics. The fact that images may be discovered more now since the internet, these protests may turn out to be such a daily occurrence that they will lose their message.

  • aby

    Those who are asking us to define religious liberty as freedom of offense are the same ones who are censoring books and movies, dreaping their women and burning Christian churches.

  • wanderer3

    when you offend

  • Steve18792

    I agree with the author of the article. We should carefully guard our liberties and not let international law dictate what we can and can not do here in the USA.

    In addition, it seems like way too many people have an enorbmous chip on their shoulder. They go out of their way to be offended by the least little thing, and use that little thing to commit all sorts of violence and murder.

    I am heartened by the counter demonstrations in Libya that kicked out the radical elements that carried out the violence and murder on our people.

  • DavidJ9

    Following Jesus’ admonition that the one who is sinless should be the first to throw stones, I feel little concern about how badly any religion is offended if it has a history of demeaning other religions.

  • DavidJ9

    What international law that would allow oppression of speech are you talking about? As far as I am aware, no such thing exists.

    Our nation was once a leader in protecting the rights of its citizens, but we are slowly falling back.

  • DavidJ9

    It’s easier to focus on others than reform yourself.

  • oboe1

    Good point, but a purely Christian point. I don’t think that Muslims believe that Islam “demeans” other religions in the sense that you use it, but rather that Islam is the one true religion, and that other religions need to recognize their lesser status. I think that the average Muslim would deny that Islam demeans other religions.

  • sadia

    well, how can a person deny that he or she is ignorant from what he or she is doing. these are lame excuses. one should bother the difference between freedom of speech and hate speech. To say something and act alike in disregard of any religion is prohibited even in UN charter the why the champion of Human Rights generating antagonists feeling in the hearts of millions of Muslims and disregard their religion not fair at all. Islam teaches us PEACE not Wars but the way the trailer of movie highlighted on Youtube compelled Muslims and helpless Muslims now destroying their own property.this is really pity. This is an humble request to remove it from Youtube …

  • williambellah

    A little like two negatives make a positive, to much of a good thing is a bad thing. Respect is not a dirty word.

  • just_looking

    The disgusting, vile, bigoted men behind this movie, as well as Phelps and Jones, certainly have a legal right to their hurtful speech under our system of law. But they and their immediate families should be shunned and ridiculed whenever possible. They should be refused every social kindness and made to feel unwanted in all social circumstances; people should boycott their businesses and refuse them services. Their actions are despicable, and while legally protected, they should be treated as social pariahs whenever possible. Without their hateful endeavors, none of the subsequent actions would have happened.

  • aghayyurkhan1

    Religious freedom is based on people being able to profess and propogate their religion not their ability to insult & derogate others’.
    If it were allowed to happen no society would be free from strife.
    Islam’s trancendant superiority over all other religions of the world is because it teaches respect for other religions & their founders. Let others claim insult & obscene speech as their badge of honor.

  • pepawjoe

    Instead of GOVERNING the People of America, the “NEW GOVERNMENT” “TELLS the PEOPLE How, When, Where, What, Who, and TOO WHOM will be effected and “SO-FORTH”.
    Depending with WHO is OCCUPYNG the WHITE HOUSE, American’s People “ARE NO LONGER GOVERNED EQUALLY”.
    Corporate Power, Wealth, and MONEY Controls “ALL” the ABOVE.
    “LIKE IT, because, THAT”S ALL YOU GET ANYWAY”!!!

  • aghayyurkhan1

    Religious freedom depends on peoples ability to profess & propogate their own religion not in insulting or derogating others’. Otherwise no society would be free from strife. Islam’s transcendent superiority over all other religions of the world is because The Holy Quran enjoins respect for all religions & their founders. Leaving insult & obscene speech to others. It is very sad that claimants of this great religion bring it a bad name by acting against its commandments.


    Islam’s transcendent superiority?


  • itsthedax

    Dear christians, muslims, sikhs, buddhists, mormons,raelians, scientologists, and all other people of religion:

    You do not have a right to never be offended by anything that you choose to consider offensive.

  • WmarkW

    Ironic isn’t it?

    My comment early in this thread (made in the first six hours) was deleted by the moderator.


    And sometimes the comments submission software doesn’t really work too good.

  • itsthedax

    And what does your little bigoted diatribe have to do with anything I posted?