At the White House press briefing today, Jay Carney took a break from condemning the anti-Islam video that sparked protests this week in order to criticize a French magazine for publishing a cartoon mocking Islam:
“We are aware that a French magazine published cartoons featuring a figure resembling the Prophet Muhammad. Obviously we have questions about the judgment of publishing something like this. We know that these images will be deeply offensive to many and have the potential to be inflammatory. But we’ve spoken repeatedly about the importance of upholding the freedom of expression that is enshrined in our Constitution. In other words, we don’t question the right of something like this to be published. We just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it.
Nothing Carney said is wrong; the cartoon was offensive and publishing it was poor judgment. But notice his tone. The last time the White House weighed in on a major First Amendment controversy, it was freedom of religion during the Ground Zero mosque debate. At the time, Obama struck a very different note:
Let me be clear: as a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are. The writ of our Founders must endure.
Even the strongest critics of the Ground Zero mosque agreed that the imam had the right to build it; the point was that the majority of Americans considered it highly offensive. And yet Obama would only discuss the legal issue, declining to weigh in on the sensitivities.
“I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there,” Obama said at the time. “I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about. And I think it’s very important as difficult as some of these issues are that we stay focused on who we are as a people and what our values are all about.”
The left praised Obama’s supposedly brave defense of the First Amendment. Well, it’s easy to be brave when you’re lecturing Americans about the importance of religious tolerance at the site of a mass-murder carried out by religious fundamentalists. As for whether the mosque-builders should have been tolerant of the feelings of the 9/11 families — the “wisdom” of their plan apparently wasn’t for Obama to comment on. The former Constitutional law professor was simply defending the First Amendment.
What happened to Obama’s constitutional devotion since then? In the face of the recent protests, the White House isn’t defending the First Amendment right now so much as apologizing for it.
“As I said yesterday, it can be difficult to see in some countries why the U.S. can’t simply eliminate this expression,” Jay Carney said ruefully last week. “But as you know…it’s one of our fundamental principles.”
Instead of enlightening us about the importance of our founding rights and values, the White House scrambled to ask YouTube to remove the offensive video last week. And the Obama administration has been more than willing to weigh in on the poor “judgment” behind the anti-Islam film and cartoons. It’s not so much what the White House is saying that’s noteworthy, it’s the dramatic shift in tone.