It is essential to clarify what kinds of viewpoints are rightly subject to criticism, if the United States is to successfully deliver internationally the subtle message that it protects the right to express hateful viewpoints, but criticizes their content. What precisely merits government criticism in the video? One option is to criticize it as being blasphemous.
But blasphemy is the wrong frame of criticism. Our free speech and religious freedom traditions require that the state not take a position on which religions are false and which are true. That is the core idea of our ban on the establishment of religion. But blasphemy takes a side in disputes between religions. This is not a perspective that we can endorse. Citizens must not only be free from coercion but also free from state criticism if they assert the truth of one religion and the falsity of others.
The content of Innocence of Muslims is not merely about asserting the "falsity" of Islam and the truth of another religion. Instead, it is filled with hostility towards the Muslim people as child molesters. It is analogous to the famous blood libel, myths about Jewish ritual used to slander the Jewish people as a whole. The blood libel is anti-Semitic hate speech masked as criticism of religious practice. Similarly, Innocence of Muslims claims to criticize religious practice but it actually aims to disparage the Muslim people. The video should be regarded as a form of hate speech against Muslims.
The United States government should articulate why our tradition of free speech and religious freedom is founded upon an ideal of equal respect. That ideal is violated by the anti-Muslim video. The government has a duty to articulate why the right to free speech is protected in the case of the video, even though it condemns the video's message. This can clarify for an international audience that the state's protection of hateful expression does not imply approval of the content of that expression.
The State Department adopted this response when it aired ads in Pakistan to quell riots there. The videos show President Obama and Hillary Clinton giving an official defense of our free speech traditions while condemning the video. They took neither a neutralist nor a prohibitionist approach to hate speech, but a third approach: "democratic persuasion." They defended free speech protection for the videos. Yet they made use of state speech to clarify that the protection does not imply approval or indifference towards the message in the video. Instead, they articulated that protection of the right of free speech was based on the value of equal respect. They clarified that the same values that lead us to protect hate speech also can lead us to condemn it.
With the lens of this third view of "democratic persuasion," we can see the State Department ads as a principled defense of democratic values, and as neither an apology nor a pragmatic concession to the need to quell the riots. Of course the violence abroad provided an impetus for these advertisements. But rightly understood, the aim to protect and criticize hate speech should be a broader part of United States public diplomacy beyond the specific commercials run in Pakistan. Such a policy of democratic persuasion would articulate why we defend free speech, while condemning hateful expression.