As is always the case, only controversial speech sparks debate about the right of free speech.
Irrational protests continue all over the Middle East, cries for vengeance against heretics ("Death to America," "Death to France"), even vandalism and murder, including that of the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
It's a good thing Americans realize that Islam is a religion of peace. Otherwise, they might get the mistaken impression that these hordes of religious zealots are predisposed to unspeakable levels of violence whenever it strikes their fancy.
Of course, not all the protests stem from Muslim anger over the brief YouTube video "Innocence of the Muslims?" that has been described, probably fairly so, as blasphemous. The assault on the U.S. mission in Libya looks like a well-organized attack by al-Qaida terrorists, not a spontaneous street demonstration that grew in fury.
It seems clear that al-Qaida launched this assault around the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., to extract revenge on the United States for killing its leader Osama bin Laden and remind this country that they're still a dangerously viable organization.
Nonetheless, much of the current wave of violence is being linked to an obscene YouTube video. Such violence has been prompted by less.
Much of the Muslim world reserves the right to attack and sometimes kill if and when their religious sensibilities are offended and to do so without fear of any recriminations.
Just a few days ago, while urging restraint, Iraq President Nuri Kamal al-Maliki condemned the film as an intolerable assault on the Islamic religion. An Iranian leader pronounced that "the Muslim world is outraged at the U.S. for allowing the production of such a blasphemous film." The spiritual leader of Egypt's controlling Muslim Brotherhood topped matters off by announcing that unless this kind of activity is criminalized "such acts will continue to cause devout Muslim countries across the world to suspect and even loathe the West, especially the USA, for allowing their citizens to violate the sanctity of what they hold dear and holy."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary responded with a ringing declaration of the sacred right of free speech enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She averred that residents of some foreign countries may not understand why, but "we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be."
Secretary Clinton was exactly correct, but not everyone in the Obama administration has her backbone. The administration unsuccessfully sought to persuade Google, which owns YouTube, to remove the video.
More ominously, the maker of the video, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, was taken into custody by authorities in California. They explained that Nakoula was taken into custody for a parole violation, but that claim is not credible.
So what about freedom of expression? Does America submit to the Muslims' self-proclaimed right to oversee what we see and read?
Ominously, some sophisticates are wavering.
Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment opines that the video might not deserve free speech protection because it could be perceived as an incitement to imminent violence. Anthony Lewis, a retired New York Times columnist, agreed with her, saying of the video that "I think this meets the imminence standard."
The "imminence standard" refers to a speaker inciting a crowd to engage in violence, like a Ku Klux Klan leader urging members of a crowd to go burn down a church. The idea that a film made in one part of the world and seen months later in another part of the world over YouTube could be construed as an "imminent incitement" borders on blasphemy itself. At the very least, it is ludicrous.
What these comments reflect is less a matter of thoughtful legal analysis than obsequious deference to restrain the hostile. It's not unlike members of a family walking around on eggshells to keep the alcoholic father pacified.
Americans can't do that and won't do that. Cultural understanding goes both ways. Our free society depends in great part on free speech, and there can be no compromise on that point.
It is the duty of the federal government to see that rights are not infringed — without apology.