By JONATHAN GURWITZ
New York Times News Service
The oath of office prescribed in Article II of the Constitution stipulates that the president will “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Article VI requires senators, representatives and executive officers, among others, to be bound by an oath “to support this Constitution.”
The Constitution does not require that our nation’s leaders critique movies, though they may do so. It does not obligate them to assuage hurt feelings, though they may also do that. It does require them to uphold certain rights, among them the First Amendment rights regarding the establishment of religion and freedom of speech.
In response to outrage over “Innocence of Muslims,” U.S. leaders have given the video two thumbs down. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the first U.S. official to issue a public statement about the “inflammatory material posted on the Internet.” Clinton said, “The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.” About free speech, she said nothing.
President Obama was next. “The United States has been a nation that respects all faiths,” he noted. “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.” About free speech, he said nothing.
The Obama administration’s passive position on a bedrock principle of American freedom is troubling. More disturbing was its active effort to compel Google to take down “Innocence of Muslims” from its subsidiary YouTube, despite the fact that the video — though offensive — does not violate its terms of service. Then there was the middle-of-the-night perp walk of the video’s enigmatic producer, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, for potential “parole violations.”
Decent people have a duty to speak out against words and acts that are intended to give offense, as “Innocence of Muslims” is surely meant to do. The United States has an interest in letting Muslims around the world know that the vast majority of Americans don’t share the sentiments expressed in the video.
But the U.S. government has no responsibility to protect anyone from being offended by the constitutionally protected speech of one of its citizens. And it has no business acting as an enforcer of any religion’s blasphemy laws.
This could be, as Obama is fond of calling such situations, a teachable moment. The leader of the free world might explain to people for whom liberty is a distant or new concept that with freedom comes responsibility, that real freedom entails the ability to both give and take offense, and that in free societies governments are not accountable for — nor may they limit — the duly exercised rights of its citizens.
He might mention that tolerance is indeed a two-way street. This point especially needs to be heard in Islamic countries where the government does control the media and where perverse depictions of Christians, Jews and other religious groups are routine, as are incitements to violence against them.
Someone with a knowledge of constitutional law might also quote the Supreme Court decision in Cohen vs. California. “To many, the immediate consequence of this freedom may often appear to be only verbal tumult, discord, and even offensive utterance,” Justice John Harlan wrote for the majority. “These are, however, within established limits, in truth necessary side effects of the broader enduring values which the process of open debate permits us to achieve.”
No one, however, who took seriously an oath to defend the Constitution would allow the nation’s enemies — or the American people — to believe that those enduring values could be compromised to appease the demands of religious extremists. Voltaire is apocryphally credited with saying, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
If the Obama administration disapproves of what you say, it won’t defend your rights — even if you’re threatened with death.