Treading the line between free speech and incitement

On the 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, riots broke out in Egypt and Libya. The reason, or maybe more of a pretext, is a 13-minute movie trailer posted on YouTube in July. The movie, called “The Innocence of Muslims,” is more vitriolic than a Bill O’Reilly rant. The mysterious Sam Bacile, which is likely a pseudonym of Nakoula Bassely Nakoula, made the film to expose “Islam as a hateful religion.” In an act that ironically seems to bolster Bacile’s stance, a Libyan mob killed Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three of his staff, on Sept. 12.

Later that day, Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, tweeted, “How soon is Sam Bacile going to be in jail folks? I need him to go now. When Americans die because you are stupid.” In other words, Butler thinks that upsetting people is a crime if they go and commit crimes afterwards. When readers reminded her that we have freedom of speech in this country, she responded, “People do [go] to jail for speech. First Amendment doesn’t cover everything a person says.” I will now attempt to analyze that statement in relation to this case.

Perhaps Butler thinks Bacile is guilty of incitement to violence, but if so, she is quite mistaken. Under the First Amendment, only advocacy that is subversive and calculated to produce a likely and imminent lawless action is punishable, as stated in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969). Bacile does not fit any of the categories, let alone all of them, which is needed in order for him to be found guilty. He didn’t make the Libyan mob kill Stevens. He certainly did not advocate Stevens’ death. Any lawless action produced by his film came long after he made it available on YouTube and probably wasn’t caused solely by the movie, since anti-American sentiment runs rampant in the Third World.

Maybe I am misinterpreting Butler’s statement. Butler may actually believe Bacile is guilty of hate speech or fighting words considering she called him out for “mock[ing] another person’s belief.” If so, she is still wrong; he was not addressing anyone in person. The video is a work of art with a message. Therefore, it is allowed under the First Amendment because, according to Police Department v. Mosley (1972),  “the government has no power to restrict expression because of its message [or] its ideas.”  Moreover, the trailer was filled with political commentary, targeting the actions of government authorities, Islamic laws and the treatment of the Jews.

I’ve seen worse by Dave Chappelle and the creators of South Park. Does Butler want them to go to jail, too? Or do we wait until people riot over one of their episodes? Because then the riots would clearly be Trey Parker’s fault. Butler is wrong no matter how you interpret her statements.

Butler ended her Twitter tirade with this gem: “I am all for free speech, but you better damn well understand that actions have consequences.” Butler should be directing this toward Stevens’ murderers, but apparently she is not outraged by the killing of an innocent third party by extremists. Furthermore, if you want to talk about consequences, think of what type of precedent would be set if Bacile was arrested for making a scathing, insulting politically-motivated movie. I would like to know if Butler would call for the arrest of an anti-Christian movie mocking Jesus, because people like her ­— read liberal professors — oftentimes hold a double standard.

Ondo is a member of the class of 2014.



You can contact Adam at aondo@u.rochester.edu.

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