A Right to Be Wrong

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Yesterday my RealClear colleague Carl Cannon posted a column suggesting that America's leaders have insufficiently emphasized our constitution's First Amendment when dealing with the overseas reaction to that scurrilous anti-Muslim video.

With all due respect, I think Carl is mostly wrong.

Here is his main thesis:

"Romney's beef with Obama was that he and his aides made expressions of contrition about a YouTube video spoofing Islam and Mohammed that the U.S. government had nothing to do with. This critique, whether or not it should have been made while Americans diplomats were missing in Libya, turned out to be prescient.

"Obama and his officials, while prefacing their remarks with the caveat that the anti-American violence was unjustified, made the centerpiece of its public response to the crisis an expression of solicitude to Muslims whose feelings were hurt by the 13-minute trailer for a inane film produced by a California-based nobody...

"The second problem with the president's response is that his oath of office does not require him to soothe hurt feelings of religious zealots in other countries -- or this country, for that matter. His oath of office requires him to defend the Constitution of the United States.

"That first 10 amendments to the Constitution, it should go without saying, are the Bill of Rights. And the First Amendment -- there's a reason it's first -- guarantees both the freedom of worship and the freedom of speech. Certainly, it isn't asking too much of a U.S. president to make the point that those rights are intertwined, that it's not really possible to have one without the other."

Carl goes on to say that neither Obama nor other members of the administration mentioned freedom of speech as they expressed their disapproval for the stupid film.

But not only were there zero expressions of contrition that I can find, US officials made the point several times that freedom of expression was a vital right to be protected.

Start with the first statement out of the US embassy in Cairo as the attacks started:

"Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others."

Obama's first statement mentioned nothing about the film, only his condemnation of the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens.

He and Clinton issued a series of statements over the next couple of days. They consistently condemned the violence, expressed their disapproval for the film, and insisted that whatever the film said was no justification for the attacks.

Here's a nugget from Obama:

"Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None. The world must stand together to unequivocally reject these brutal acts."

Here's a nugget from Clinton, during a joint appearance with the Moroccan Foreign Minister:

"Now, I know it is hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day. Now, I would note that in today's world with today's technologies, that is impossible. But even if it were possible, our country does have a long tradition of free expression, which is enshrined in our Constitution and our law, and we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be."

So start with Carl's suggestion that the administration expressed "contrition." That's an upscale word for "apology." My dictionary offers the definition "sincere remorse for wrongdoing; repentance."

From our Egyptian embassy, Obama and Clinton, every statement I see about the film and the attack takes this basic form:

That poop on your lawn? I agree it's disgusting. And despite what you may think, I promise that it wasn't my dog.

That's not an apology. Not a bit of "I did something that I regret and repent." Zero contrition.

Next to the First Amendment and its position in the administration's statements.

From what I read, in most of the nations where the riots have been happening, there is little in the way of risk-free free expression. Much of what gets into the media is either government approved or generated by factions that want to become the government. Anything like opposition is always released with the awareness that reprisals are possible. If that's your framework, why wouldn't you think the stupid film has official US backing?

Not that the rioters will give a Middle Eastern fig. But for the many millions more who aren't rioting, for the people who held those signs expressing sorrow for the death of Stevens, I want them to know first and immediately that it was not the US government's dog who dumped on their religion. Which is what the administration did.

As for them educating them about the First Amendment? It's worth noting that the power of the US Bill of Rights doesn't apply to how people react in in other countries.

But yes, it's also a good thing to take an opportunity to explain to the world that one of the special glories of the American system is that our right to be stupid hereabouts is, within very broad boundaries, powerfully protected. Though I'm not sure that it's implicit in the president's oath of office that he should lecture the rest of the world about that even as flames lick the sky in other lands.

I will absolutely agree with Carl that those who are calling for a US government crackdown on the filmmaker are on dubious ground. Our legal limits on speech -- no crying "fire" in a crowded theater -- apply within our borders. If people elsewhere are looking for an excuse to go nuts, I'd imagine that the legal standard for American censorship would need to include slam-dunk imminent danger to Americans and American interests as an unambiguous consequence.

Which was not the case, here. After all, the stupid video was slithering around on the Internet for months before it got noticed. American YouTube still hosts it. And the filmmaker is being protected by police, if news accounts are right. He's not under arrest.

Seems to me Clinton did a pretty good job of taking on the First Amendment issue, however. And it was during an event that, given who she was there with, likely got some play in the Middle East. But when it comes for a succinct explanation for how freedom of speech works around here, I don't think anybody can beat Pete Seeger:

"Isn't that the wonderful thing about America? You got a right to be wrong! Where else in the world can you do it like we can do it here?"

No place, I'd say.

Jeffrey Weiss is a Dallas-based religion writer. Follow him on Twitter @WeissFaithWrite.

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