Innocence of Muslims is a strange, amateurish, and rambling video that attacks the Prophet Mohammed as a hypocrite and fraud. It purports to express the anger of Coptic Christians against Islamic oppression. Posted on YouTube and translated into Arabic, the video -- said to be a trailer for a feature-length film -- has inflamed passionate anger and outrage throughout the Islamic world, most dramatically in Egypt and Libya, where U.S. Amb. J. Christopher Stevens was murdered in the ensuing riots.
These cycles of Islamic offense and violence have by now become predictable. Once Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini rose to the bait and issued a 1989 fatwa requiring Salman Rushdie's execution on the ground that The Satanic Verses were "blasphemous against Islam," it became clear that insulting Islam would become an easy and cheap way to create an international incident. That path has now become well-worn, from the 2005 publication of the Mohammed cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten to the 2010 "International Burn a Quran Day" of Florida pastor Terry Jones.
Millions of Muslims are deeply offended by the publication of material that insults Islam and its prophet. Such speech is prohibited as blasphemous by the laws of many Islamic states. In Pakistan, two senior government officials were assassinated for advocating the repeal of Pakistan's harsh and repressive blasphemy laws, which are used to oppress religious minorities. In the Islamic world, outrage at Western blasphemy is a ready tool for the arousal of anti-Western sentiments.
It is easy to cast blame on those like Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the apparent producer of Innocence of Muslims. They know they are throwing matches into a tinderbox. They mean to be provocative. Many argue that they should be held accountable for the readily foreseeable consequences of their speech. Those inclined to this position invariably cite the famous aphorism of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in his opinion in Schenk v. United States: "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic."
But we ought to be cautious about applying Holmes's precept. Superb lawyer that he was, Holmes was careful to condemn only the man who falsely shouts fire in a theater. The charge against Innocence of Muslims is not that it is false. It is rather that the film is blasphemous, that it will likely provoke those who are offended to acts of violence, and that it will damage the foreign interests of the United States.
The First Amendment jurisprudence of the United States does not permit our government to punish speech merely because it is blasphemous. Speech becomes blasphemous when it is deemed intolerable by the standards of a particular group. Muslims have their definition of blasphemy; Catholics have a different definition. The constitutional tradition in the United States is that no group can impose its definition of the sacred to restrict the space of public debate.
Our First Amendment jurisprudence is built on the concept of individual rights. We believe that every person should be allowed his or her contribution to public discourse. The Supreme Court explained the justification for this belief 72 years ago in the transformative case of Cantwell v. Connecticut:
In the realm of religious faith, and in that of political belief, sharp differences arise. In both fields the tenets of one man may seem the rankest error to his neighbor. To persuade others to his own point of view, the pleader, as we know, at times resorts to exaggeration, to vilification of men who have been, or are, prominent in church or state, and even to false statement. But the people of this nation have ordained in the light of history, that, 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 the citizens of a democracy. The essential characteristic of these liberties is, that under their shield many types of life, character, opinion and belief can develop unmolested and unobstructed. Nowhere is this shield more necessary than in our own country for a people composed of many races and of many creeds.