• The Heritage Network
    • Resize:
    • A
    • A
    • A
  • Donate
  • Limits on Free Speech? A Dangerous Message

    Diplomats abroad represent the government of the United States. They must, therefore, speak with tact, but also with honesty. After all, most of the people they’re speaking to have no firsthand experience with the U.S. Our diplomats are teaching foreigners about America. In fact, the “primary purpose of United States public diplomacy is to explain, promote, and defend American principles to audiences abroad.”

    So let’s consider the message our government sent with this statement that the American Embassy in Egypt put out on Tuesday: “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims—as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”

    It was speaking out against a low-budget film that has apparently been screened only once, to an audience of about a dozen people, clips of which have circulated online. The embassy seems to have been attempting to reduce tensions in the region. That obviously didn’t work, as a mob soon stormed the embassy compound anyway.

    The bigger problem is that the embassy statement makes it seem as though the U.S. government is taking an official position that it opposes speech that may “offend believers” of a particular faith (of course, speech that one person finds offensive, another will consider banal). The State Department backed away from that claim after the attack. “The statement by Embassy Cairo was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government,” an official said. But it was too late. Americans understand that our government doesn’t have the authority to ban offensive speech. But foreign people may not be aware of that.

    For example, after the attack Egypt’s prime minister, Hisham Kandil, announced: “We ask the American government to take a firm position toward this film’s producers within the framework of international charters that criminalize acts that stir strife on the basis of race, color or religion.”

    Except that the First Amendment protection of free speech overrides any such “international charters.” The producers of the film have the right to be offensive, if they so desire, as much as we ourselves may not like it. For his part, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi “condemned the transgression upon the prophet and ordered the Egyptian Embassy in Washington to take appropriate legal measures against the producers of the film.”

    Again, there are simply no “legal measures” to take. Our government doesn’t control American filmmakers.

    The confusion is understandable. Egypt’s government may well have the power to take legal action against filmmakers, and Egyptians may well assume the American government does as well. It’s up to our embassies to remind publics overseas that our government’s authority over filmmakers (and writers, and orators) is rightly limited.

    Our government isn’t responsible for the content of movies made, books written, or blogs posted by Americans. Nor should it condemn or condone the content of free speech. That’s a complicated message, but one that foreigners need to hear again and again.

    Posted in Featured, First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    6 Responses to Limits on Free Speech? A Dangerous Message

    1. O_Henry says:

      Shout it from the roof tops or you will not be permitted to whisper it in dark corners….

    2. Lloyd Scallan says:

      Now you're starting to understand how Obama plans are working. Why do you think Hillary and the Dems are blaming the Middle East on some obscure U-Tube video that no one on the street every saw? It's another part of Obama's plan to destroy America as we have know it by destroying our free speech rights to speak out against anything he, or the Democrats are attempting to do. That why he is so hell-bent on controling the internet, TV, and talk radio.

    3. Blair Franconia, NH says:

      We already have limits on free speech. They're called libel laws.

    4. Stirling says:

      The problem is this administration (progressives) don't belive that America should have the freedoms that set us apart from the rest of the world. This really is the crux of the hypocrisy, they have an easier time putting down our country (thru apeasement) then explaining the greatness of our country.

    5. John811c says:

      Turns out the creator of this film was an Egyptian Christian living in the US probably outraged at the treatment of Christians in Egypt by Muslims …that said our constitution gives us freedoms not found anywhere else in the world. There have been many atrocities committed by Muslims and Arabs against Christians so when one of them speaks out against this and their messenger of God Mohammed by presenting his side. Just as they denounce Jesus… It is hate speech when a Cristian says something about Islam but it is not when A Muslim does the same thing to a Jew or Christian.

    Comments are subject to approval and moderation. We remind everyone that The Heritage Foundation promotes a civil society where ideas and debate flourish. Please be respectful of each other and the subjects of any criticism. While we may not always agree on policy, we should all agree that being appropriately informed is everyone's intention visiting this site. Profanity, lewdness, personal attacks, and other forms of incivility will not be tolerated. Please keep your thoughts brief and avoid ALL CAPS. While we respect your first amendment rights, we are obligated to our readers to maintain these standards. Thanks for joining the conversation.

    Big Government Is NOT the Answer

    Your tax dollars are being spent on programs that we really don't need.

    I Agree I Disagree ×

    Get Heritage In Your Inbox — FREE!

    Heritage Foundation e-mails keep you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.