Freedom of Speech Needs Defending When It’s Hardest to Defend

By  · Published on September 13th, 2012

Judging purely from the 14 minutes available online, Muslim Innocence— the movie that sparked outrage in Libya and Egypt, leading to the death of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others – is the cinematic and ethical equivalent of toilet paper. It’s exactly the kind of mess a small minority worships these days. It’s myopic and angry, spewing forth from an ignorant source claiming as loudly as possible to be an expert. It wouldn’t be a shame if it had never been made, but it was, and that’s why it needs protection.

The First Amendment isn’t for convenience, and it isn’t for stuff like Lilo and Stitch. It is designed specifically for speech that people get angry about.

Because of the violent response to the film by a mob, and partially because it doesn’t have the natural protection of professionalism, there’s a deeply burning gut reaction to get rid of it. One critic even suggested we burn every copy (a comment that, appropriately, is also protected), but while it’s easy to understand that kind of immediate emotional response, it’s also necessary to take a deep breath before re-agreeing that art (no matter how awfully made and no matter the subject) deserves freedom.

This is a complex situation, featuring an anonymous filmmaker (“Sam Bacile”) who’s falsified identification claims already; what might have been a coordinated attack masked by a protest; and the death of several US citizens doing their duty abroad. The full details of how all this happened and what role the movie played may never be known. It may have been a spark, a pawn or an excuse. Above all, it’s profoundly important to recognize that a piece of art didn’t kill anyone yesterday. People did, and they should be brought to justice. Whether the mob outrage in Libya was spontaneous or planned, there is a court room waiting for all who perpetrated the destruction and the murder of four innocents. It’s unspeakably tragic that a band of insecure madmen responded to a schoolyard bully’s taunts by killing their neighbor, but that’s exactly why it’s equally encouraging to see so many in the streets denouncing the violence, proclaiming that it’s not the true face of Islam and mourning the deaths at our side.

Secondly, there’s no arguing that the movie is insulting – both in content and in execution. It’s incomprehensible to the point that calling it “amateurish” is a step up, with terrible green screen use and bizarre dubbing (which was necessary because the cast and crew didn’t know they were making a movie about Mohammed). It’s an incredible struggle to speak up for art when it’s so vile and hate-filled, but with pressure from President Morsi of Egypt to take legal action against the filmmakers, it’s frustratingly important to do so. This film may deserve to be spit upon by every decent human on the planet, but it still gets the suit of armor, just like everything else. Standing up for free speech means this asshole is lurking in the back of the crowd, waving sheepishly and sharing in the defense.

Protecting The Passion Means Protecting This

So what other films would have seen their celluloid burned in response to public outrage or the threat of a response? Movies like Passion of the Christ, The Last Temptation of Christ, A Serbian Film and others that cover controversial topics and figures. Yes, this one is cheap, but should a movie’s budget count when figuring in its level of protection? Yes, it’s awful, but should an opinion on quality count too? Yes, it’s explicitly provocative, but aren’t several of the movies listed above also meant to create a visceral response?

John Stuart Mill got it right in “On Liberty”:

“Strange it is that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free speech but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme,’ not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.”

This movie might be the most extreme case, but various groups have all come out against offensive pieces of art in the past. Religious emotions aside, artists should have the freedom to portray Mohammed in a highly negative light just like they should have the freedom to portray Christ as a homosexual or Hitler as a guy with a bad mustache wearing a banana suit. The old childhood chant about sticks and stones is supposed to apply here as there is no honor in perpetrating violence on an artist for his or her work (unless, of course, Uwe Boll invites you to punch him in the mouth).

The Question of Pornography

If Mulsim Innocence was made specifically to incite an intense reaction from a particular audience, isn’t it the filmic equivalent of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater? That’s a difficult question to answer because it touches on what even the Supreme Court recognizes as a gray area. It’s arguable that Andres Serrano intended specifically to cause outrage when he submerged a cross-bound Jesus into what he claims was his own urine and took a photograph of it, especially since it certainly garnered that effect. In fact, Serrano’s work went far enough to incite death threats to be sent to the officials at the National Gallery of Victoria. People threatened to kill others simply for showing it. Ultimately, someone tried to steal it, and two people ended up damaging the art with a hammer. This is what can happen when art hits a nerve.

There’s a sort of mootness here, though. Even if you deem something like Muslim Innocence as pornography, there’s still no law against making pornography, nor should there be. Tricking his actors into working on something like this, possibly violating parole by being on the internet – these things could definitely come to legal action – but the raw act of making the movie shouldn’t come anywhere near the legal system.

At its most basic, free speech means that once in a while a moron will make something awful and mean-spirited. That’s the price of being able to make/see challenging movies like I Am Curious (Yellow) or Do the Right Thing. It’s also the price of ensuring that religious icons are not also sacred (read: off limits) in the secular sphere.

What The Steep Path Is

Nothing about this reprehensible action is easy or simple, except for an aggressive gut reaction. There are still details coming out, and even with the truth, the moral scenario may still be entirely murky except for one basic truth: the people who killed in Libya are responsible for cold-blooded murder no matter what they cite as their reason or catalyst. There are dozens of complex elements to consider here – personal loss, geopolitical cooperation, religious interests, local political posturing, Presidential responses – but certainly free speech is among them, and every once in a while (normally when something large and terrible occurs), it’s important to remind ourselves that we have to protect that protection even as we seek justice against the real crimes.

It’s hard to put it better than Mohamed El Dahshan: “Is the film insulting? Yeah, sure. But the best reaction would have been to ignore it completely. There is no virtue in displaying lethal outrage (as in Benghazi) whenever anyone throws a feeble punch at Islam and Muslims. Doing so is only a display of weakness, a fear that our religion cannot withstand even the silliest of skits. This idea is insulting in itself. Bring on the insults, I say – bring on the hatred, the mockery, the piques, the spitballs. The amateur films, the Danish cartoons, the Geert Wilders, and the like. There is little harm than can befall Islam as a faith. It has withstood, over the past fourteen centuries, infinitely worse attacks, yet it has neither weakened nor vanished.”

Even despite its tragically unique status as a protested film, its still the inexcusable response which has given this feeble punch a lot more power than it deserves.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.