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War of principles: Can free speech exist?

As embassies across the Islamic world face new waves of protests against recent offensive cartoons and anti-Islam film, Ahram Online examines global notions of freedom of speech and the legislation guarding it

Bel Trew, Friday 21 Sep 2012
U.S. embassy
An Egyptian protester with covers his face during clashes with security forces, not shown, near the U.S. embassy in Cairo (Photo: AP)
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Views: 3934

After a week of waiting for America to take action, Egypt's prosecutor-general on Wednesday announced it had issued arrest warrants for seven US-based Copts and an American pastor over the inflammatory film "Innocence of Muslims."  The eight, which include the film's alleged maker Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, face charges which could see them get the death penalty.

During last week's protests and street fights outside the American embassy in Cairo, protesters expressed frustration at the US for seemingly "doing nothing."

"I don't understand why Obama can't at the very least, apologise for it," Ali Mahmoud, a Salafist academic from Fayoum said, "Members of his own staff were killed – people have died. It should be banned; the director brought to justice."

Friday saw yet another day of violent anti-West protests with 13 dead in Pakistan, as fresh demonstrations kicked off across the Muslim world in response to offensive cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published in French weekly Charlie Hebdo.

The resounding question in Egypt and across the region is why protect such pointless and slanderous media that has resulted in the needless deaths of close to 50 people.

Calls to reassess free speech legislation

Egypt's Hisham Qandil government demanded last Wednesday that the filmmaker of "The Innocence of Muslims" be prosecuted under international law criminalising actions which cause sectarian strife.

As cracks showed in Egypt-American relations, President Mohamed Morsi himself demanded the US put in place "legal measures."

The Obama administration, in carefully worded statements, condemned the film. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton went a little further, saying she thought it was "disgusting."

Washington, however, refused to offer an apology for the video. They refrained from stating that making this kind of material was wrong or announcing they would be prosecuting the filmmaker for it.

America's silence coupled with the increasingly violent reactions to the film, sparked a global debate about whether the US, which is protected by arguably the world's most free and open freedom of speech legislation, should put greater restrictions on what they allow to reach the public sphere.

Underlying this debate is how material is classified under ever changing and complex US and international laws.

Commentators contend there is some rationale to the US either altering its own laws or bending to international law, which includes provisos such as "hate speech" which is not criminalised under American law.

The fluidity of free speech

Tamer Nagy Mahmoud, an Egyptian attorney practicing in Washington DC, explained that the First Amendment of the US Constitution protects freedom of expression from any sort of government interference, with a few limited exceptions. Nothing is set in stone, he added, the exceptions are mostly derived from case law not from the constitutional language itself.

Some commentators debated whether "The Innocence of Muslims" was an example of "hate speech" as it, arguably, provoked people to take violent action against US missions in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Sudan among others.

The legal definition of "hate speech", however, differs between countries.

Instead of "hate speech", in the US expression can only be prosecuted if "it is intended and likely to produce imminent violence or lawless action," Nagi explains, "Theoretically in America you can have groups like the Klu Klux Klan spewing the most hateful language but unless it fills this criteria, you can't stop them."    

The emphasis in US law is on the immediacy and the likelihood of the reaction to the footage. In this case, it would have been hard to predict that this particular clip would have inspired such a reaction, such as the deaths of four US diplomats in Libya.

German US attorney-at-law David Mueller* who lectures on freedom of speech, explains to Ahram Online, "You cannot make something retroactively criminal. If, at the time the film is made, it is legal, you cannot declare it illegal later.

"Even if serious harm is done, you cannot punish retrospectively – you can ask yourself whether the irresponsible individual could be stopped in the future but still you can't undo what has already been done."

Material can also be banned if it is classified as "obscene" in the US, meaning if it "appeals to average person's interest in sexuality, is patently offensive by the community standards and lacks serious artistic, scientific or political value," Nagy continues.

The fact that "The Innocence of Muslims" is, in terms of copyright, a creative work (however poor), raises further problems for those calling for an embargo.  

Creative expression and defamation

"Art, humour and satire are always covered," Mueller explains, "you may not agree with the film but the US does not judge for bad taste." In fact, you can get away with a lot more if the expression occurs in an artistic context.

Groups, unsuccessfully, have attempted to get the 1987 photographic work "Piss Christ" showing a crucifix immersed in urine and "The Holy Virgin Mary", which depicted close-ups of female genitalia from porn magazines, banned. Even Jesus wearing a nappy during the 2003 "Jerry Springer – the Opera" was not sufficient enough to have the film taken off the BBC schedule. The artistic nature of the material protected them under international law.

The eight facing arrest in Egypt are being charged with spreading false information among other accusations. It could be argued that the video defames Egyptian Muslims, who are portrayed as raging mobs burning Christian homes and the Prophet himself, who is painted as a womanizer, homosexual and child abuser.

Defamation in the US can only be proven if the action was done "with actual malice and knowledge of falsehood", Nagy explains, which, some might argue, fits the film's content. 

Nevertheless, in both European and US courts of law, only individuals not classes of people can file damages to personal reputation, Mueller further explained.

In other words, Egypt's 80 million Muslims cannot sue the filmmaker for collectively damaging their reputation under US law.

Neither is it possible to file a defamation lawsuit on behalf of someone else. Consequently the only figure who would be able to effectively file a suit against the film would be the Prophet Mohammed himself.

A threat to national security

The final, and perhaps most widely discussed, impetus to restrict expression concerns  national security – a point many commentators have raised in the wake of the ongoing violence, particularly now that French diplomatic buildings could face a similar beating.

Temple University international law professor Peter Spiro pointed out on legal blog Opinio Juris, for "structural and functional reasons" it does not make a lot of sense to allow the irresponsible act of an individual seriously compromise national foreign relations, or threaten the safety of hundreds.

How democratic is it, he argued, if the "peace of the Whole [is] left to the disposal of the Part?"

Speaking to Ahram Online, Spiro elaborated.

"There are contexts in which constitutional rights have been circumscribed in the face of foreign relations imperatives," he explains, "Yes it's a 'slippery slope' but you can say that about pretty much any constraint on speech."

As it stands, even with protesters launching rocket-propel grenades at the US mission in Libya, the American government cannot act.

For the Obama administration to seek a court-sanctioned prior restraint on a form of public expression, "it must be an expression which would surely result in direct, immediate and irreparable harm to the national security of the United States," Nagy says, "for example, if a newspaper were to print US military plans for a war that is about to start."

Nagy speculates that it would be hard for the litigators to prove the violence was so imminent as a result of the "Innocence of Muslim" clips.

Is free speech culturally specific?

The ongoing video debacle has shed light on the cultural relativity of the free speech debate. As Mueller illustrates, "under German law, the filmmaker could arguably be prosecuted, as there is a German clause saying that 'bashing a religious group or belief is punishable under criminal law.'"

In addition, under German Police Law, the authorities could prevent the film from being shown in the street, Muller adds.

Germany's dark history of the Holocaust has meant that certain restrictions, not present in US law, apply, even if it appears to contradict universal ethics of freedom of speech.

For example Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf cannot be published in Germany, "as the government believes it will incite people, this is a very Germanic view and is only understandable in the context of German history," Mueller explains.

Some groups have been campaigning to have the treatise published with a contextual commentary, as this would better match Germany's overall attitudes towards freedom of expression. However, as it stands, the authorities have banned the book from physically entering the country and being accessed online.

Problems occur when these differences in legislation and legal definitions clash.

Egyptian legal stance on freedom of speech

In Egypt, the bottom line is that the video would be illegal. "Although Egypt's 1971 Constitution protects freedom of expression generally – the articles are subject to law," Nagy explains.

On the long (and fairly vague) list of banned activities enshrined in Egypt's penal code is "insulting a religion or ethnic group" and "anything that is inconsistent with public morals."

There is legal precedent of groups successfully suing a foreigner because the action is deemed to be illegal in the country of the litigator, Mueller says, however, they have to prove there was "minimal contact."

"To bring a foreigner to an Egyptian court there needs to be some kind of contact between the person who is sued and the venue where he is sued (Egypt) – the fact that the film was made in the US makes this very difficult."  Mueller explains.

Proving this contact is where it becomes hazy. Even if the film is clearly targeted towards Egyptians, Mueller continues, the director would have had to have deliberately bought the clip to Egypt or for example, publically screened it on Egyptian soil to prove that it affected people here.

However, should the filmmaker, who is an Egyptian Copt living in southern California, still retain his Egyptian citizenship, Nagy adds, then despite being based abroad and committing a legal act in his host country, he remains generally under the jurisdiction of Egyptian law here. 

Morsi's move and the web

The internet further complicates the matter.  Legislation is inherently tied to geographical boundaries: you must obey the laws of the territory you are in.The online world is an unfettered, unregulated, territorially unbound global meeting place where contradicting legislation and ideas meet and clash.

An offensive video posted in America can easily reach the computer screen of an Egyptian in Egypt and have a direct effect on the viewer, which is a form of contact. As a result, courts across the world, Nagy explains, are constantly re-defining and qualifying legal language in regard to online content.

The film, however, would be banned in Egypt under Egyptian law, Nagy adds. The Egyptian executive branch "has the power to ban any publication or work of art that is coming from abroad from being circulated or from entering Egypt."  An example is Rushdie's contentious novel, The Satanic Verses.

This means, President Morsi and his cabinet have the power to ensure the inflammatory movie is neither physically available nor accessible online in Egypt: an option Morsi has not explored despite calling on the US to "take decisive action."

Google and YouTube in Egypt corroborated this fact to Ahram Online: "where we have launched YouTube locally and we are notified that a video is illegal in that country, we will restrict access to it after a thorough review."

"YouTube… in Egypt, it does have its own domain, " Google affirms, explaining that this means that provided it could be proved that the clip is illegal under Egyptian law (which it is) YouTube and Google would make it impossible for anyone to access the video from an Egyptian IP address.

Google International themselves are under no obligation to restrict access in America as the "Innocence of Muslims" is "clearly within our Community Guidelines" which regulates the website. The guidelines list specific criteria (such as hate speech or sexually explicit content) the YouTube community use to flag a video. A "flagged" clip is consequently reviewed and if it breaks the regulations, taken down.

Despite this, Google went beyond its own guidelines to restrict access to the clips in the countries where it is illegal "such as India and Indonesia as well as Libya and Egypt."

It temporarily blocked the original trailer and exact duplicates in Egypt due to the "very difficult situation" in the country not because the Egyptian government requested that they do. 

This throws a very different light on recent events, as it is in fact up to Egypt's president, in this instance, to ban the film, which Morsi has as yet not done.

In America, it is a lot harder to remove the video from the Internet. One of the actors, American Cindy Lee Garcia who claims the script she saw referenced neither Muslims or Prophet Mohammed, lost her lawsuit Thursday when the judge rejected a request to force YouTube to take down the trailer. YouTube has also separately refused to take it down.

Redefining approaches to free speech

Freedom of speech legislation is vague in its complexities. Merely classifying statements of expression is hard enough let alone prosecuting those responsible.

The ability to disseminate material with ease across international borders via the internet without knowledge or control over who accesses it, only confounds the issue.

The internet has become a forum for the war of principles, highlighting the cultural relativity of freedom. When these etymological battles reach the streets and violence erupts, the need to react to the consequences of the inflammatory material can result in countries backtracking on principles.

As Spiro comments, "There is the risk of 'heckler's veto'… the violence and instability on the other side of the balance is obviously serious and immediate."

When news broke Charlie Hebdo had printed the inflammatory cartoons, the French Foreign Ministry announced, Wednesday, it would close embassies and schools in 20 countries worldwide, preempting the hostile reaction America had recently suffered.

The French government, in order to protect the initial expression of freedom by allowing the publication of anti-Islam images, has now had to, hypocritically, rein in expression by banning protests about both the film and the caricatures.

As countries bandy court cases and law suits across borders, is the answer to localise the internet to restrict these interactions? Alternatively, do you create global catch-alls to trammel up the consequences of "offensive" speech in general? Or ultimately are we condemned to reactively bow to the heckler's veto, forever?

*The interviewee's name has been changed due to the sensitivity of the subject

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Hermann Reuter
25-09-2012 11:34am
Western Point of View
While anybody is free to believe what he thinks right, and no governement must infringe on religious beliefs, religion ist nevertheless an strictly private matter. No religious community is entitled to force it's beliefs and views on others. No religion, neither Christians nor Jews nor Muslims, have the right to stop any argument, be it tasteless or even outright idiotic, under the pretext of being insulted. Freedom of Religion means not only to believe, but as well the freedom not to believe and the freedom of criticizing other religions, even in a wording that is offending or poorly made or simply idiotic. Of course, the way of arguing sheds a ligt on the person making the arguments. Of course any educated person will strictly avoid to offend anybody else, be it on religious matters or, for example, on a lack of beauty or whatever. But this is not a question of law, but of taste and education. The Movie about Mohammad is compltely lacking education, taste and, last not least,
Comment's Title

24-09-2012 06:28am
Clash of Civilizations
It weighs so heavy on my mind and heart when I see and read of such violence in the name of religion! It's like some people are waiting for an excuse to kill innocent people over "their" opinions however hurtful and distasteful they may be for one group of people, the other group of people has no idea what all the fuss is over and never will because they have an entirely different set of religious values, which other groups have been just as disrespectful of in the past. There is no difference, the difference is in how you handle the situation. Does it make you a better person, to strive harder to prove people wrong about you and to rise above the violence? Or will you prove them right and become animals and thugs and murderers and kill innocent people!! Whatever religion you say you are defending...I'm sorry I don't buy it, you are not very Islamic, Christian or Jewish if you turn to violence and murder in the name of God! God turns his back on those that turn their back on him, how
Comment's Title

Aladdin, Egypt
23-09-2012 04:40am
New World Disorder
The prophet (SAWS) is way above mud slinging by lunatics. He is well respected and recognized by world intellects, historians, etc. He is credited for advocating huamn rights, freedom of slaves, women equality, etc. THe film maker is angery man for muslim discrimination aganst him and Copts in Egypt. They burned his home, stole his assets, and was forced to leave Egypt to the land of religious freedom, USA.
Comment's Title
Hani Booz
25-09-2012 03:32pm
Ilogical excuse without any substance.
The second paragragh is ilogical,inflamtory and can not be substanciated.It is not an excuse for wrong doing.If you need to learnabout Islam and how it suceded you need to read The evolution of Man and society byDarlington1969-1971He will tell you the success of the islamic empire was built on tolerance to other religion and good adminstration.j
Hani Booz
25-09-2012 03:13pm
Ilogical comment
First of all the second paragragh is ilogical.You are trying to justfy wrong doing

Anver, Istanbul
22-09-2012 02:45pm
No to insulting Muslims in the name of freedom of speech
to Jane the Zionist, Exposing Zionism doesn't constitute to any religion, including Judaism. But insulting the Prophet is the ultimate offense against Islam and Muslims . Besides, westerners can practice their freedom of speech without insulting other religions and cultures.
Comment's Title

22-09-2012 04:25am
Egytian hypocrasy and double standards
Egypt produced a film version of Protocols of Zion yet you turn around and try to get similar things about Muslims censored in other countries. Egypt allows hate speech towards Jews so why are you demanding prosecution for insulting your people in other countries?
Comment's Title
Sam, from Tulsa, Oklahoma
22-09-2012 02:36pm
the Protocols are authentic
The Protocols are likely to be authentic. Israel and Jews are contrlling most Western government and banks and media. You see even the President of the US has toi grovel at Jewish feet?????

22-09-2012 12:20am
I realy respect some of the muslims in both muslims & christians especially islamic countries for their understanding in the peaceful demonstration with no violence & sheding of blood.pls lets learn from each other for a peacefull living bcos as it is,some of the time things of this nature do take place at the negative side of christianity but never for you to see ones any demonstration kind of a thing due to the level in advansment to doctrines & teachings that in every things let God take controls.
Comment's Title

Omar Kamel
21-09-2012 07:34pm
The 'West' Just Doesn't Get It...
Good article, covers a lot of ground - people also forget that it's illegal in France to joke about the Holocaust or dispute it's scope and history - and to my knowledge, despite things like Piss Christ, the Danish newspaper that published the first Muhamed cartoons (with bomb turbans) had previously refused to publish cartoons mocking Christ. When judging how strongly Muslim’s take offense to insults regarding Islam or Muhammed and even God when the word ‘Allah’ is involved – it is easy to forget a basic fact: the epithet ‘Sayidna‘ is used not only for Muhammed, but for Jesus and Moses as well. This is Muslims on the whole, do not insult Christianity or Judaism (Zionism is an entirely different matter and it’s unfortunate that less careful Arabs use the word ‘Jew’ when they intend to say ‘Zionist’ – to be noted is that once pointed out, they always accept the distinction). Muslims equally, never insult or make derogatory jokes regarding Jesus and Moses. So, ironically, given t
Comment's Title
22-09-2012 04:29am
Muslim double standards
I don't understand your complaint. In France it is illegal to joke about the Holocaust so joking about the Prophet Mohammad should be banned there too? Joking about the Holocaust is legal in every Islamic country but not insulting Islam. So why are you sticking your finger in the business of France or Germany? If you don't like their laws don't go to their countries. They have no obligation to change for you.
22-09-2012 04:18am
Truth spoken
Amin brother!

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