Reactions to Innocence of Muslims, the anti-Islam video made by a Coptic Christian resident of California, have divided on two familiar lines that separate the United States from most other nations in the world. "Prohibitionists" called for free speech to be limited in the face of blasphemous or hateful expression. In the United States, the most vocal defenders of free speech, the "neutralists," have argued that the government should express no opinion about hate speech. For example, the conservative press reacted to President Obama's condemnation of the video by calling it an apology for our rights of free expression.
Lost in these two familiar reactions, however, is a third way of thinking about free speech that lacks the flaws of prohibitionist bans and neutralist refusals to condemn even the worst hate speech. This alternative approach, which I call "democratic persuasion," protects all viewpoints, even racist and anti-religious ones, from coercion. But in my view, the protection of free speech must be combined with a strong defense of the value of equal respect. The state should use its status as an influential speaker to defend democratic values and to argue against hateful viewpoints. It is essential that the state criticize hate speech to avoid the misperception that protection means indifference or endorsement. This kind of misperception is endemic in the structure of free speech rights, which protect all viewpoints.
The State Department and the president used this third approach in their public statements and advertisements run on Pakistani television. Far from being a flawed "apology," as conservative media charged, the advertisements released by the State Department suggested how we might appeal to democratic values to condemn hate speech. This approach allows American foreign policy to articulate and explain our uniquely robust free speech tradition. The policy avoids the blunt instrument of prohibiting hate speech as well as the anemic refusal to condemn it.
Our First Amendment doctrine of "viewpoint neutrality" protects all matters of opinion on politics, religion, and philosophy from punishment. Our free speech jurisprudence allows declarations about the falsehood or truth of religious beliefs. This right of free speech respects the autonomy of citizens and their ability to decide for themselves on matters of conscience and politics. This protection is extended to all citizens based on the value of equality.
The right of free speech protects the freedom to express "blasphemous" viewpoints that may be seen as defaming or disparaging the fundamental tenets of a religion. The free exercise of religion, also a right respected in the United States, may depend partly on the freedom to assert the truth of one religion's beliefs and to disparage assertions of another religion.
The Supreme Court, while allowing threats to be prohibited, has extended free speech to hateful viewpoints, such as those of the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi party. The anti-Muslim video is also protected by this standard.
The video is meant to cause offense in its depictions of the Prophet Mohammed as a child molester. It combines homophobia and anti-Muslim animus in asserting that homosexuality is fundamental to Islam. In the United States, however, attempts to ban this work would be restricted on free speech grounds.