Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil

Chances are the name Nakoula Basseley Nakoula is not familiar to you.

Nor is his reputed pseudonym — Sam Bacile.

This unknown man, living in America, has been able to shake the world. He is reportedly the man who made the film ridiculing the Muslim prophet Mohammed.

His amateurish film has caused or been the excuse for riots in the Muslim world against the United States and other countries. Four Americans, including the ambassador to Libya, have been killed, supposedly because of the film.

Yet, it seems that the United States cannot punish him, because he had the right under the First Amendment to the Constitution to make the film.

Even though some Muslims recognize that the First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of speech, allowed Nakoula to make the film, they believe that the law should not allow speech that attacks the religious beliefs of others. But deadly riots are not justified.

American leaders have been quick to both condemn the film and defend the First Amendment right of the producer.

There are few limits to free speech in the United States. Many years ago, the Supreme Court said that a person cannot without justification yell “fire” in a crowded theater. And people cannot readily defame others — except in political campaigns — without running the risk of being sued for libel or slander.

Free speech is probably as absolute in the United States as in any country, and it is at the core of American society. How many times have you said, “Well, it’s a free country?”

So must we accept that some people will use freedom of speech in ways that can cause great harm, even loss of life, to Americans and the country’s interests in the world?

Throughout American history, there has been an unwritten limit on the abuse of freedom of speech.

It is the notion that citizens owe something to their country. President John F. Kennedy said it clearly: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

Being a good citizen has been a sort of civic religion in the United States. Whatever our First Amendment rights, we would hesitate before saying something that we believed might be harmful to our country.

Our obligations as good citizens did not make us servants of the state or its dependents. But, in a country dedicated to allowing the strongest expression of individual liberty, we also were committed to our community.

“In citizenship the passions normally dedicated to self and kin are directed to a higher purpose, the public good,” Peter Riesenberg, a distinguished professor emeritus at Washington University in St. Louis now living in Maine, once wrote.

Now, some of the strongest defenders of the producer of the anti-Islam film are conservatives who stress individual rights including free speech.

They are right, but their defense is part of a worrisome tendency to believe that dedication only “to self and kin” is the best way to be a good citizen, to achieve the public good.

For them, government has become the enemy of the individual not the instrument of the community.

What about Mr. Nakoula? Has he abused his constitutional right? If so, what can be done?

Born in Egypt, he may not be an American, but an Egyptian. Under the Constitution, most rights are recognized as applying to all people in the United States, not only to citizens. So he gets the protection of the First Amendment.

Nakoula is a member of the Coptic Christian minority in Egypt, a group fearful of the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. His film was reportedly financed by his fellow believers there.

To deflect attention from them, he used a false name and said that he was Jewish, presumably in the belief that Israel and not the Coptic Christians would suffer whatever retaliation would come.

Whatever his intent, it was his host country that paid for his abuses. He ignored the obligation he had to the community that had extended him the right to free speech.

There seem to be no grounds on which he can be prosecuted, thanks to his constitutional protection. But if he is not a citizen, Nakoula should be taken from hiding and deported, not because he made the film, but because he admits that he meant it to stir up trouble, which took American lives.

As for the country, we have to accept that the exercise of the rights we honor may sometimes bring us grief in the world. Many people have died to preserve those rights, and our sense of citizenship requires that we also honor our debt to them.


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