Contemplating Free Speech in the Wake of “Innocence of Muslims”

I recently watched a short clip entitled “Innocence of Muslims” on YouTube. For those of you who haven’t heard, this 14-minute trailer has been the center of a significant amount of controversy. I would like to preface this for those of you who haven’t seen it by saying that it is a terrible video. I mean, it is bad. The shoddy acting, direction, lighting and general production are laughable at best. But more importantly, it portrays Muslims in an incredibly negative light and even depicts the prophet Muhammad (displaying images of the prophet is a no-no, according to Islamic doctrine) as a philandering pig (even more of a no-no). 

Its release caused pandemonium in numerous predominantly Muslim countries. People protested, and violence and anti-U.S. propaganda ensued. Various governments also started demanding that access to the video be blocked in their countries. Some even wanted it removed from the Internet entirely—including in the U.S. At first I was righteously indignant at this request. How could someone demand the removal of a video from YouTube? I gave kudos to YouTube for not listening. We live in a democracy, after all. But the more I looked into it, the more I realized that the video opens up a whole can of worms on the topic of free speech. Should YouTube remove this video? I’m beginning to think that the question is a lot more complicated than it originally seemed. Don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer in our Bill of Rights. I think that people have a right to create controversial works and that we have a right to access them. But there are a few key issues that place this video solidly in a grey area. 

The video was clearly made in a deceitful manner and with the intent to incite violence. It portrays Muslims in a derogatory light, and its portrayal of Muhammad is particularly incendiary, but the film does not speak out against Muslims outright. If the film could be categorized as hate speech, would that justify its removal from the Internet? 

Another issue: according to a few of the actors on the film, they were duped into believing they were acting in a film entitled Desert Warriors. The lines they spoke were later dubbed over—they had no idea what film they were really making. Cindy Lee Garcia, an actress in the film, went so far as to sue YouTube and its parent company, Google. She lost, but do the actors have a right to demand the film’s removal if they were misled in the creation of its content? 

I don’t believe that this particular film should be pulled from YouTube. I think it needs to remain there, in order for people to see exactly what caused so much controversy and violence. But I do believe that people need to be made aware that this film was made deceptively, without the actors’ knowledge of the film’s true content. Their rights were infringed upon. And I do feel that, amidst all the uproar this film has produced, and all the uproar about the uproar, we are forced to reconsider the question of free speech and where we draw the line. As liberal arts students in what is supposedly the world’s greatest democracy, we sometimes take our right to free speech for granted. But whether we’re protesting a global injustice or criticizing an administrative policy, our words have power. This is something we need to think about.

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