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Free speech, rights, and responsibilities

September 13, 2012

(The content of this post is topical. Standard disclaimers apply: this is my opinion and does not reflect the opinion of the FWA, its leaders and members, business partners, my cat, the Queen of England, and the Pope.)

When I was a kid, one of the other kids in the neighborhood would sometimes amuse himself by poking at people, needling them, just to get a response. Kids are kids and eventually someone would get sick of the needling and hang one on the side of his head. Then he would run in and tell his mom, and punishments ensued.

One day, his mom and my mom watched out the back window while he needled me. I stopped what I was doing, walked over to him, and belted him. True to form, he ran in and told his mom, who told him he deserved it and to go out and play.

Fast forward to this week. A guy named Sam Bacile says he is responsible for a movie trailer for something called Innocence of Muslims, which depicts the Prophet Mohammed as a homosexual who endorses extramarital sex and pedophilia, among other things. The movie was dubbed into Arabic this week and riots ensued, involving two of this country’s embassies and resulting in the death of the Ambassador to Libya and three others. If you want to watch the movie trailer, please Google it.

This post is not about responsibility for the rioting and the deaths. That is clearly the responsibility of those who rioted and killed.

This post is about our responsibility as writers. I have written some rather offensive things in my lifetime–most of them purposely offensive. There are things in this world that are offensive and deserve to be called out. According to Mr. Bacile, the more radical strains of Islam combine to be one of those things.

So the question of the day is this: At what point, if any, is the right of free speech trumped by responsibility for foreseeable consequences?

The extremes are easy. You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater. But if I include a reference to the Washington Redskins and you demand I change it because you are offended, I suspect you will be disappointed. It’s the in-between that’s hard.

For me, it’s the don’t act like a putz rule. If you write something offensive solely for the purpose of offending someone, with no greater purpose, you’re acting like a putz. If you have a greater purpose, you may actually be a putz, but in that case, you aren’t acting like one.

In my book, Salman Rushdie, for example, is not a putz. Andres Serrano, the guy who submerged a crucifix in urine and took a picture of it, is arguably a putz. (He claims one of his purposes was to show the cheapening of the Christian faith. If true, he may not be acting like a putz.) I’m not going to opine on whether Mr. Bacile is acting putz-like.

What is your line? Is there one?

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7 Comments
  1. Jack Owen permalink
    September 13, 2012 8:49 am

    Seems to me, with few exceptions, the guaranteed “freed of speach” ENDS at the border of the USA, its territories and WITHIN its embassies and consulates.
    Therefore, any utterances outside that bubble would be subject to the laws and mores of other locales – no matter how repugnant they may appear from “our” perspective. If actions taken have foreseen reprecusions – throwing a lighted match near a gasoline spill – then the perpetrator ought to be held responsible for his/her actions.
    There is an International Court of Law, currently processing a couple of dicators, war-lords, who should be able to adjudicate the sophomoric, but deadly actions, or movie-makers and preacehrs who spew bile with the intent of being World Class Putzes!

    • Chris Hamilton permalink
      September 13, 2012 12:31 pm

      The problem is, there has to be a reasonable line. If you give ultimate power to the offended, everything becomes offensive. And if ever time someone’s panties get wadded, you wind up at The Hague, you have the same effect. This movie fails the putz test. Writing a book in which a character has anti-Muslim bias would most likely not.

  2. John Gardner permalink
    September 13, 2012 10:22 am

    I believe in free speech, and as you rightly pointed out the true responsibility for the violence lies with those who committed it. Interesting that this occurred at this time. In just our last meeting there was a submission that if published would prove equally inflammatory to the Muslim world. At the time, I pointed out that it was inflammatory, and contained several inaccuracies.

    In the wake of this violence, you might think I’d feel vindicated, instead I feel sickened. While I care for the feelings of others, I will not be held hostage by fear of the reactions of groups. I can not defend what Bacile said, but he does have the right to say it.

    • Chris Hamilton permalink
      September 13, 2012 12:33 pm

      I agree, mostly. I think this was made with the sole purpose of agitating Muslims. I would even go so far as to say there may be people whose agenda is forwarded by the agitation. Either way, freedom of speech becomes subject to manipulation.

      • September 14, 2012 12:50 pm

        I think that it’s not simply that this video was produced with the goal of being inflammatory. It’s also the nature of the content.
        1) Portraying a historical figure (whether you believe he was a prophet or not, he did actually live) as a pedophile, etc., based on no evidence at all is hitting below the belt. (Pun intended.) If Muhammad were alive today, he could sue, but since he’s not, people take advantage. (I’m offended, and I’m an Orthodox Jew who used to live in Israel!) I once read a novel about a British monarch (a particularly beloved one) that accused her of murder. There is not one scrap of evidence that she is a murderer, nonetheless, her name was defamed (she has living descendants, too) and there’s nothing that can be done.
        2) Outside the film itself, lies were told about the making of the movie. Those deliberate untruths spun off into anti-semitic and anti-Israel protests, as well as the anti-American ones. You can’t intentionally mislead the public and then claim, “Oh, it was free speech.”

  3. September 13, 2012 11:43 am

    The terrorist attack on our embassy was planned before anyone knew about any movie, coinciding with the 911 anniversary. The enemy does not need an excuse to murder Americans.

    • Chris Hamilton permalink
      September 13, 2012 12:33 pm

      No, but this movie clouds that issue.

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