The Obama Administration has formally asked YouTube “to review” the anti-Muslim film “Innocence of Muslims.” In a perfectly incoherent position, White House press secretary Jay Carney stressed that the White House was not asking for it to be removed . . . only “reviewed.” I have been discussing this controversy on NPR and CNN. The latest White House move appears to be an effort to get YouTube to remove the video without taking responsibility for expressly asking for the removal. For civil libertarians, the announcement leaves an uneasy — and all-too-familiar — feeling with this Administration. The White House has repeated compromised on civil liberties in favor of political advantage in areas like torture, immunity, and surveillance policies.
We have seen this type of double talk before — in the aftermath of the Danish cartoon violence. The Administration has joined Muslim allies in trying to develop what has been called an “international blasphemy” standard. (For prior columns, click here and here). The West has steadily yielded to the demands of religious groups that free speech must be curtailed in the name of faith. At the same time, Western governmental and religious leaders have denounced agnostics and atheists as one of the greatest threats facing the West (here and here and here and here). President Obama and Hillary Clinton have been facilitating this trend by working with Muslim nations to develop an international standard allowing for the prosecution of those who insult religion. The Administration has drawn a dangerous line with Muslim countries in first supporting the concept of an international blasphemy standard. As I have mentioned before, the efforts of the Obama Administration to work with these countries on an international blasphemy standard is a threat to free speech around the world. After first supporting an international blasphemy standard, the Administration sought to get Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other countries to adopt the Brandenburg standard as the basis for such prosecutions. This case also shows why the use of the Brandenburg standard is so dangerous in the hands of such officials who view free speech as the cause of imminent violence. Past cases show that even the suggestion of blasphemy is enough to trigger violent riots in some Muslim nations. Because any joke or image of the Prophet can trigger violence, the standard is immediately satisfied in countries like Egypt and Pakistan, which can then claim some legal legitimacy under the standard created with the United States.
YouTube should resist such efforts to withdraw the video in my view. Today in an exchange with Howard Kurtz on CNN is disagreed with his view that the video should be at least withdrawn from the sites on other countries. This suggests that free speech is an American value. Civil libertarians believe it is a basis human right. YouTube does not produce cars or widgets. It supplies a unique forum for a global dialogue. While it clearly has the right to remove material from its site, such an act (even with the obvious encouragement of the White House) would be an act of private censorship. If this video is removed, then why not any video that is deemed insulting to a given religious or religious figure. These deaths were not caused be any film. They were caused by religious extremism. It is not a question of whether the film is “worth” these lives. It isn’t. Free speech is.
The request from the White House reflects the same dishonest approach of some of our closest allies who refused to punish the Danish cartoonists while then quietly cracking down on anti-religious speech. The correct and only answer is that he filmmaker has a right to express his views of Muhammad and Islam. Muslims have a right to respond in kind. However, we cannot allow murderous mobs to turn this into a debate over free speech. These mobs are in countries that have long killed and arrested those who speak out against their beliefs. We cannot yield to such demands.