U.S. Government Response to Violence in Libya & Egypt Indicates Troubling Views on Free Speech

September 13, 2012 – NEW YORK – On Tuesday night, the eleventh anniversary of September 11, 2001, Libyan militants attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, brutally killing U.S. ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. In Cairo, nearly 3,000 Egyptian demonstrators climbed the walls of the U.S. embassy, violently attacked U.S. sovereign territory, tore down an American flag, and replaced it with a black one that read: “There is no God but God and Mohammed is the prophet of God.”

U.S. officials indicated the attacks in Benghazi, orchestrated under the guise of protesting a satirical film produced in the United States about Islam’s Prophet Mohammed, may have been pre-planned. Officials suspect “an organized group had either been waiting for an opportunity to exploit like the protests over the video or perhaps even generated the protests as a cover for their attack.” At least one day before the attacks in Egypt, terrorist groups including Islamic Jihad, the Sunni Group, and Al Gamaa Al Islamiyya issued a statement calling for the immediate release of Islamist jihadis imprisoned in the United States and threatened to burn the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to the ground.

Nevertheless, the embassy posted the following press release on its website:

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. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. 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. (Emphasis added)

The embassy then tweeted after the attack that it stood by the release.

While the Obama administration reportedly disavowed the language as “not reflect[ing] the views of the United States government,” subsequent statements released by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama adopted the same view on defamation of religion. Secretary Clinton’s statement condemned “in the strongest terms” the Benghazi attack, then added:

Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind. (Emphasis added)

Shortly thereafter, Clinton described the film at issue as “disgusting and reprehensible” and empathized with those who do not “understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day,” noting that “in today’s world, with today’s technologies, that is impossible.” Clinton then emphasized the role that the Constitution plays in limiting the government’s ability to “stop individual citizens from expressing their views, no matter how distasteful they may be.”

Similarly, President Obama’s statement condemned the killings, continuing, “While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.” (Emphasis added)

President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s statements echo the position of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which have been maneuvering to stifle the blasphemy of Islam throughout the world. The Lawfare Project has previously reported on the administration’s efforts to suppress speech about militant Islam and terrorism, most notably:

  • The State Department’s support and implementation of U.N. Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, championed by the OIC and part of a series of U.N. resolutions aimed at criminalizing speech offensive to Islam;
  • The redaction of the words “Islam” and “jihad” from Department of Defense counter-terror training manuals;
  • The Fort Hood report that classified the terrorist attack carried out by American soldier Major Nidal Hassan as “workplace violence,” and the same report’s omission of Hassan’s ties to Islamist terror groups as well as his essay arguing for the painful liquidation of non-Muslims;
  • The refusal of Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General of the Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division, to state whether the DOJ will protect free speech critical of religion; and
  • Consultations between DOJ officials and anti-free speech Islamist advocates — including the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), a Muslim Brotherhood front-group and unindicted co-conspirator in a terror financing trial — on criticism of Islam as racial discrimination.

The Lawfare Project is deeply concerned with both the State Department and the President’s qualified condemnations of brutal violence claiming the lives of U.S. citizens, and with their ongoing efforts to suppress protected speech critical of Islamism.

Lawfare Project Director Brooke Goldstein commented, “It is firmly within the constitutional rights of American citizens and, contrary to the embassy’s statement, within the free speech rights of all human beings to speak openly and critically about Islam as well as all other religions. This is true even when the speech amounts to ‘hate speech’ or is offensive.”

The U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts have repeatedly held the protection of contentious speech to be a critical component of our society. In Terminiello v. City of Chicago, the Supreme Court famously stated:

[A] function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea.

The Lawfare Project calls upon the Executive Branch to withdraw recent statements undermining the value of and publicly discrediting the constitutionally protected right to speak freely and critically about religion.

For more information, please contact:

Brooke Goldstein – Brooke@TheLawfareProject.org – (212) 922-1672 ext. 302