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The murder of an American diplomat and three others in Libya, the deaths of many others in riotous protests,  and an ongoing outbreak of rage in the Muslim world that shows no sign of abating call for us to ask an important question:

Should videos such as the hateful amateur production that sparked all the violence be protected as free speech? Americans are big on the notion of free speech, and rightly so: people should be able to express their views freely and without fear of recrimination. But are there limits on free speech?

Supreme court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes long ago coined the familiar axiom that “The most stringent protection would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”

So, when does free speech cross the line between expressing and opinion and inciting a riot? The inflammatory video in question, posted by a California man from an Egyptian Coptic Christian sect, was clearly designed to provoke anger. It was posted back in July, but when it didn’t get any traction, another Coptic Christian sent links of it to reporters in Egypt, the U.S., and elsewhere during the week prior to September 11. 

It’s bad enough that the perpetrators of this offensive video bear the name “Christian,” but the bigger question is whether an expression of speech that’s clearly designed to provoke international riots should be protected. Would U.S. officials be justified in taking the video down? Should YouTube-owner Google take down the video — or screen such material — as an act of social responsibility?

I am confident there is no easy answer, but surely the question is worth asking.

 

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