Commentary: 'Innocence of Muslims' and free speech

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramSeptember 19, 2012 

Americans are free to say anything.

Except "fightin' words."

We can spout off.

But never to provoke chaos or a riot.

We have a great First Amendment. But our freedom has limits.

That convicted felon moviemaker in California is pushing those limits -- but he hasn't crossed them, professors from the Texas Wesleyan School of Law said Friday.

Until a showboating crony from Virginia promoted the Muslim-bashing video and it wound up shown on a ranting Islamist TV host's talk show, nobody paid any attention to "Innocence of Muslims."

The movie was not directly connected to the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya. But Egyptian TV coverage and in particular host Sheikh Khaled Abdalla's tirades stirred other backlash.

Legal scholars debated last week whether the video was maliciously posted solely to spark violence.

"Did the filmmaker say he wants to make the audience violent?" asked law professor Lynne Rambo of Wesleyan, soon to join Texas A&M University.

"We allow all kinds of speech, as long as it is not meant to immediately provoke violence. Right now, in my mind, this isn't too terribly different from the Rev. [Fred] Phelps," the 82-year-old Kansas pastor whose church protests at funerals nationwide.

Officials believe the filmmaker is Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an ex-convict with a history of methamphetamine and bank fraud convictions. After serving about a year in prison for fraud, he hired a soft-core porn director and unsuspecting actors for $75 a day.

A shoddy version was shown in June in Hollywood to a near-empty theater. But online views skyrocketed when Muslim-bashing activist Morris Sadek of Virginia went trolling by sending Egyptian reporters the video, and a Quran-burning Florida pastor chimed in for attention.

"We don't protect threats or 'fighting words,' which means something that incites an immediate breach of the peace," said law professor H. Brian Holland, adding that recent federal and state court decisions have allowed more expression.

"But there has to be a direct connection between what's uttered and violence. The interesting part of this, the video is constantly played over and over again, so maybe there is no time-space separation."

Law professor Meg Penrose cited a 1969 Ohio case where a Ku Klux Klan leader's call for "revengeance" was ruled free speech. "It has to have that sense of imminence," she said.

"Sure, you can post something in Hollywood and have it all over Libya in 10 minutes. But our American values include a First Amendment that protects a lot of obnoxious things.

"This is disgusting. Our hope is to counteract it with more, better-educated speech."

And not a show.

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