One day late last summer, brief news reports mentioned that a California man named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula voluntarily left his home early on a Saturday morning for a meeting at a local sheriff’s station. The impression created by the articles was that Mr. Nakoula meandered down to the station one fine sunny day under his own power because authorities were worried he might have violated the terms of his probation on a 2010 bank fraud charge. The stories stressed that he was absolutely, 100% not arrested, and that he left the station later that morning.
Nakoula wasn’t suspected of doing anything violent, or indeed anything that would have been illegal for most of us. Readers might have wondered why national news outlets were even reporting such trivia. In any case, the story never “grew legs”—that is, never got around much.
Another, seemingly very different, news story definitely had legs. This one began before Nakoula’s non-arrest and continued after it, and surely every reader or watcher of national media knew about it. I’m talking about the news that the restaurant chain Chick-fil-A was found to have been donating money to organizations opposed to gay marriage.
That didn’t seem terribly surprising or newsworthy, either. Chick-fil-A’s owners, the Cathy family, are well known to be devout conservative Christians. They have always stated that their aim is to run their business according to “biblically based principles.” They close their stores on Sundays and they give millions to charity, with emphasis on children’s charities. Nevertheless, the completely un-shocking information that they oppose gay marriage raised quite the kerfuffle.
These two seemingly unrelated news stories have a lot more in common than first seems. For one thing, they’re both about religion. But more importantly, they’re also both about people in government trying to curb free speech.
Mr. Nakoula was the most public name associated with a very bad movie called Innocence of Muslims. The film, which pretends to be a history of Islam and portrays Mohammed as a pedophile, had had exactly one poorly attended screening at one southern California theater. It was destined for obscurity. But somehow its 13-minute trailer on YouTube happened to get translated into Arabic just in time for the 11th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Islamist thugs across the Arab world rose up in a wave of violent anti-Americanism. In Libya, some of those thugs stormed a U.S. consulate and murdered Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The whole story hasn’t come out yet as I write this. It may never. There’s evidence that the Libya attacks were planned well before the rage over the film. And with so many Muslims prone to violent furies over the slightest insult to their prophet (as we’ve seen in the life-threatening over-reactions to everything from The Satanic Verses to Danish cartoons), you really do have to wonder exactly how a forgettable film was suddenly translated and flung into millions of Muslim faces at all, let alone right before that dangerous anniversary. Who would benefit by that? Islamists? The CIA? Who knows?
But that’s another, larger story. Whatever actually went on behind the scenes, Nakoula’s terrible, tasteless movie was blamed for triggering the violence. And the Obama Administration reacted shamefully. First they responded with weasel words weakly attempting to placate the rioters. Then they responded with blatant disregard for the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.
Administration officials tried to get Google (YouTube’s owner) to take the film down. (Google, to its credit, refused.) Then came Nakoula’s “non-arrest.” He didn’t wander down to his local police station to have a low-pressure chat with the local cops on a Saturday morning. Far from it. He was rousted out of bed by the FBI in the middle of the night and forcibly carried to the local cop shop (something that meets the dictionary definition of “arrest” no matter what you choose to call it). Photos show him swaddled in scarves and sunglasses, completely surrounded by officers, being thrust into a squad car.
The FBI does not drag non-violent people out of their beds after midnight to question them about having used a false name in credits for a film (the misdeed Nakoula was reportedly questioned about). The order to treat Nakoula that way had to have come from Washington DC, very likely directly from the White House. He was interrogated and intimidated because he made a lousy, offensive film.
If making terrible films was a crime, half of Hollywood would be behind bars. Ah, but you might say, not many films cause riots and murders.
But the film didn’t cause anything. This was not a case of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. This was a case of one man (or a handful of them) expressing a simple if irreverent opinion: “Mohammed was a jerk.” Agree or disagree, that’s clearly protected speech.
If some people are so easily offended that they riot because of somebody else’s opinion halfway around the world, then they are entirely at fault for their own narrow mindset and violent actions. The proper response to people who can’t tolerate differences of opinion is, “Grow up. The world is full of opinions that offend us. Mature people and mature societies accept that.”
Yet the response of the Obama Administration was, from the beginning, not only to placate the thugs, but to try to suppress free speech here at home. (The response of Libyans was, if anything, more sensible. Shortly after the murders at the consulate, they stormed the strongholds of the murdering Islamists.)
And Chick-fil-A? Politicians quickly tried to suppress their free-speech rights, too. In Chicago, Alderman Joe Moreno swore he’d block the chain’s expansion into “his” city. DC Mayor Vincent C. Gray said he would oppose any Chick-fil-As in that city because they served “hate chicken.” San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee tweeted threateningly that the closest Chick-fil-A was 40 miles away and, “I strongly recommend that they not try to come any closer.” Perhaps most shamefully of all, Thomas Menino, mayor of Boston—the city where so many of our freedoms were defined and defended—vowed to use business licensing laws to make it “difficult” for the chain to open a location in the birthplace of liberty.
And mind you, there was never the slightest evidence Chick-fil-A discriminated against a gay customer or refused to hire a gay employee. On the contrary, they definitely do have gay employees, and part of their “biblical” policy is to offer the same (hopefully high) standard of service to all.
The only thing president Dan Cathy and the chain’s corporate giving programs did was express an opinion on marriage consistent with conservative religious views. For that, politicians across the country were willing to use political power not only to shut them up, but also to harm their business.
For the record, I think consenting adults should be able to—and obviously will—have relationships with whomever they wish. Governments only got into the business of regulating marriage a little over 100 years ago (allegedly for public health reasons) and I think they should get out of it. I also think the owners of a business have the right to make their own choices about whom they support and whom they serve—unless the business in question takes government money.
If we object to someone’s opinion, we have plenty of ways to object without resorting to censorship or intimidation from government.
If a film offends us? We can ignore it, give it a bad review, or put our own answer up on YouTube. Actress Cindy Lee Garcia, who says she was duped into appearing in Innocence of Muslims, is suing the filmmakers, who allegedly lied about the real nature of the production. All totally legit responses.
If a corporation supports a controversial viewpoint? The classic and healthy response is for customers, former customers, and wannabe customers to “vote with our wallets.” Agree with Chick-fil-A? Give ‘em more of your business. Disagree? Give ‘em the business—picket, boycott, say nasty things on your Facebook page, whatever. Don’t care? Just patronize the place or not, depending on whether you like what they serve and how they serve it.
But for governments to try to forbid a business from opening because they object to its owners’ religious or political viewpoints? Outrageous! For the power of Washington to reach down and rouse some hapless moviemaker from his bed, to invade his “castle”? Not just outrageous—unAmerican in the most fundamental sense.
We can hardly call ourselves a free country if we use political power and the force of law to still the voices of people we don’t like or don’t agree with. That’s what they do in dictatorships. That’s what governments do in a lot of Muslim countries. Do we want to join them on that slippery slope?
What is the point of a constitutional guarantee of free speech if it applies only to people we like? The most fundamental fact about free speech is that either everyone has it or no one does. If we can’t respect the free speech rights of idiots, bigots, fools, political opponents, creeps and morons, then we have no reason to expect our free speech rights to be respected, either. After all, in somebody else’s view, we’re the opponents, the idiots, and the fools.