Rights in Tension

The Broader Question: Speech and Sensitivity

The anti-Muslim movie, the First Amendment, violence, and the right versus the wisdom of speech.

The question underneath this debate centers on whether the embassy should have denounced the inflammatory film in the first place. Don't those filmmakers, however noxious, have free speech rights? And didn't we fight for centuries to win the right to blaspheme, and to do so freely?

Well, yes, of course we did. And of course these violent reactions are despicable and show that the people who respond this way do not share our values. And yes, I believe that our values are superior on this point.

So that's the principle. But there are practicalities as well to consider, and there's nothing wrong or cowardly about considering those. For example, it is obviously my "right," on "principle," to walk down the street calling black people the n-word, women the c-word, et cetera. It is also my "right" to show up at a gathering of Catholic priests and their supporters and scream about pedophiles.

All protected by the First Amendment. No one would question my right to do those things. But vast majorities would question my wisdom, my sense of decency, in doing those things. And properly so. Free speech is one of our great values and contributions to the world. But it does not exist in a state that is free of competing claims on our conscience. Rights always exist in tension with other rights.

We don't like or approve of the idea that some Muslims may resort to violence when Muhammad is blasphemed, but since we know it to be the case, what point exactly are we making by throwing gasoline on an open fire? And as far as political leaders go, their job is rarely to stand completely in behalf of one abstract principle. Their job is to balance a host of principles and interests and try to make the world a better place.

That's why George Bush and Condi Rice denounced that anti-Muhammad cartoon that time. It's why David Petraeus called Terry Jones in Florida and urged him rethink burning Korans. And it's why someone said in 2010 that "burning the Koran is wrong on every level. It puts troops in danger, and it violates a founding principle of our republic." That was Mitt Romney, reports ThinkProgress' Zack Beauchamp.

Nothing excuses violence. But to denounce something that's a clear incitement to violence, which this film is, is obviously not to endorse violence. Anyway Romney really stepped in it. Don't take it from me. Read this, by Ben Smith.