Yesterday a federal appeals court overturned a dangerous precedent on a legal technicality. The judges on the 9th Circuit ruled by a 10-1 vote that a lower court was wrong to grant an injunction to an actress in “The Innocence of Muslims” who wished to have a trailer for a film that will forever be associated with the Benghazi terror attack to be taken down from YouTube. The court decided the case on a question of copyright law, not the First Amendment rights of the film’s producer. But the question now is whether Muslims who are angry about the possibility that the trailer for an anti-Islam film might be shown again on YouTube, will respond to this decision with more violence. We pray that this won’t be the case especially in light of the way al-Qaeda connected terrorists used protests about the video as a pretext for the murder of four Americans. But no matter what they do, let’s hope the court decision will ultimately contribute to a defense of the First Amendment against those who seek to silence those who offend Muslims, whether or not we agree with what they’re saying.
The case, Garcia v. Google, involved the effort by a woman who had a brief appearance in the video under what were clearly false pretenses. She had no idea she was acting in an anti-Muslim screed and someone else’s voice was dubbed in that made it appear as if she was making an offensive remark about the Prophet Muhammed Lawyers for Cindy Garcia, argued that the actress retained the copyright to her performance and that airing it without her permission infringed on her rights. But the majority sensibly ruled that despite her justified fears about possible attacks from irate Muslims didn’t give substance to a weak copyright claim or justify a decision that would amount to censorship.
Up until now, efforts to silence the film have been met with legal success and the support of the U.S. government. Islamists eager to stoke anger at the West among Muslims exploited the existence of this obscure video into an international cause célèbre. Riots in various cities caused death and damage and in one case, let to the looting of the U.S. embassy in Cairo. But contrary to the assertions of the Obama administration in the aftermath of the Benghazi attack, that crime was not another instance of film criticism run amuck. Rather, it was a concerted attack by terrorists who were using anger about the film as a pretext for even darker purposes.
The administration should have made it clear that, however much most Americans deprecated attacks on the Muslim religion, the U.S. protected even offensive speech from persecution and censorship. But instead it sought to pressure YouTube to take down the video and some prominent officials, including reportedly Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, promised that the producer of the film would be punished. As it happens, he was. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula was soon jailed on an unrelated charge. Ironically he remains in prison even though the persons responsible for the killing of four Americans in Benghazi have escaped justice.
The key principle here is that using legal fictions such as Garcia’s non-existent copyright claims to censor a film that is an embarrassment or even a danger to the U.S. can never be justified. However crude the film might have been or despicable its content, a nation that allows mobs to shut down free speech is in danger of no longer being free. As with the controversy over the “Draw Muhammed” cartoon contest that led to an abortive terror attack in Garland, Texas earlier this month, efforts to suppress unpopular opinions grant terrorists an undeserved victory and implicitly threaten the rights of all Americans to free speech.
Silencing the video or stopping people from drawing Mohammed only encourages Islamists in their belief that they have the right to censor Western behavior. Such violence must not only be condemned. It must be confronted by a vigorous defense of the right to criticize Islam or any other faith. Continuing a ban of this video, no matter what the pretext, gave murderers a veto over American freedoms. That is something that the courts must never allow to stand.