September 12th, 2012
03:11 PM ET

Reaction to anti-Islam film fuels debate on free speech versus hate speech

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

(CNN) - The deaths of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans amid protests against a film that denigrates Islam has sparked global discussion and debate  about whether there is a line between free speech and hate speech and, if so, where it lies.

“They don’t regard perceived insults to the Prophet Mohammed or the Quran as being protected by free speech, they regard it as a capital offense,” says Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst, referring to protesters in Libya and Egypt, where the U.S. Embassy was attacked, who were angered by the film.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the movie was made by a real estate developer who wanted to portray Islam as a hateful religion.  The attack on the U.S. personnel in Benghazi, Libya, was orchestrated by extremists who used the protests as a diversion, U.S. sources told CNN Wednesday.

“In some of these cases, the people releasing these films or cartoons are trying to make a statement about free speech, which is fair enough,” says Bergen, referring to the film and other provocative recent depictions of Mohammed, Islam’s founding prophet.

"But in some cases they are deliberately trying to provoke," Bergen says. "The film that is at issue is certainly very provocative, the way it treats the Prophet Mohammed, and people who release these things are being very irresponsible."

Read: Why Muslims are sensitive on Mohammed

Newt Gingrich told CNN Wednesday that the United States should seize on the violence spurred by the film “to teach the Muslim world about freedom,” specifically about freedom of speech.

His remarks, echoed by other conservatives on Wednesday, signaled something of a divide in reaction to developments in Libya and Egypt between the political right, which stressed freedom of speech, and the left, which added condemnation of those behind the anti-Muslim film.

"The horrific attacks in Libya & Egypt are a stark contrast to our American ideals of free speech, civil disagreement," wrote Todd Rokita, a Republican U.S. congressman who is from Indiana, on Twitter.

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Gingrich, the former presidential candidate and speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, said that after the attacks, “We had an opportunity to stand up and say, ‘You know, it is true - some people in the United States might make a film that is totally whacked out.’”

“Sooner or later, we in the modern world have to say to those who are living in a different way, ‘Look, we stand for freedom,’” he said.

Gingrich criticized statements from the U.S. government that he said went too far in condemning and apologizing for the anti-Muslim film.

In a statement on Tuesday morning - before the violence - the U.S. Embassy in Egypt wrote that it "condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions."

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"Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy," the statement continued. "We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others."

Some U.S. officials spoke to the tension between U.S. support for free speech and what some have described as the film’s “hate speech,” in reacting to the attacks.

"The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement.

"Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation,” she said. “But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind."

Some other political and religious leaders also cited the tension between free speech and what they said was hate speech. "I support #freespeech AND believe this film is hateful," tweeted Eboo Patel, an American Muslim leader based in Chicago. "I stand up for #Islam AND condemn violence of extremist Muslims #fb #responsibility."

Others joined in venting disapproval of both the film and the attacks. "For the record, you can condemn violence in response to hate speech, and you can also condemn hate speech," wrote Jeff Fecke on Twitter. "You don't have to support either."

Some American Muslims said Wednesday that while they support the right of free speech, they believe that the U.S. applies its values selectively in the Muslim world, especially when it comes to military and intelligence operations.

“Freedom of speech falls alongside other freedoms to live and be free from bombs falling on people’s heads and to be free from occupations,” says Omid Safi, religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina, referring to American military and intelligence operations in parts of the Muslim world.

“I will take free speech comments seriously when others take people’s freedom of life and dignity and to be free from occupation just as seriously,” he said.

What do you think? Share your thoughts on the discussion around free speech and hate speech and we'll fold good ones into this post.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Islam • Violence

soundoff (1,088 Responses)
  1. Stephen

    Free speech rules the day and that should be the end of the story. Perhaps it’s time to leave these countries that hate us so much alone. Close our embassies, remove our troops and our financial assistance / aid. Let’s take the money saved and focus it toward developing clean and renewable energy. Once our (and other nations) dependency on their oil ends they will have lost their international importance. At that point they can decide to fade away into the history books or try to become a part of the modern world.

    September 12, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  2. Blackflag

    I have an idea. Why don't you delusional automatons just practice your silly religious beliefs privately and quietly and stop subjecting us atheists to the collateral damage caused by the violence and destruction that is bred from the conflicts between all of your various different "faiths". Faith = "I can't prove that my crazy ideas about my particular god are true, so I just choose to set aside reason and continue to believe anyway, regardless of the undeniable fact that this is the source of most of the world's violent conflicts". If you must remain "faithful" to your imaginary gods can you please do it silently? We would really appreciate it.

    September 12, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
  3. whatever

    Free Speech includes "hate speech", the SCOTUS has ruled on this many times.

    September 12, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
  4. Leo

    Hate Speech is Free Speech – haven't you been following the DNC campaign???

    September 12, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • Blackflag

      "The Jews are really hateful people."

      – Adolf Hitler

      September 12, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
  5. NorCalMojo

    That's like saying fruits vs oranges. Speech is speech. Either it's protected or it's not. If you start picking and choosing and labeling speech you don't like as hateful, it's not free anymore.

    I can't believe that we've lost this simple concept in America.

    September 12, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
  6. Steve D

    Freedom is a complicated thing. There is no doubt the film makers were free to make their film, but that doesn't mean the State Department or any individual or group isn't free to condemn it. Just as freedom of speech allows people to say, write and display lots of things, and we're all free to disagree, boycott or take other peaceful actions. When radio personalities are boycotted or sponsors pull their support it is decried as censorship. No, it's one form of freedom responding to another form of freedom. Like I said, it's complicated.

    Of course the violence by radicals is wrong. It is unjustified and serves no purpose. These are just a bunch of lunatics waiting for the next excuse to angage in violence. If it wasn't this, it would have been something else. Let me say again, there is no excuse for the violence at eitehr embassy.

    But the statement from the embassy about the film was right. If somebody made a film about how African Americans or Jews were subhuman and released it on the web and into theaters, it would be protected by the first ammendment. But every body of government at every level would condemn it, from the Whitehouse to your local county board. No one would think it was wrong to condemnt a film like that. This is the same thing.

    September 12, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
  7. mark Still

    aw////we hurt your feelings...? oh, poor baby! seriously...... this is supposed to be a mature policy of a powerful nation? We don't want to hurt people's feelings????? yeah, good luck with that.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
    • skytag

      Most childish comment I've seen in a long time.

      September 12, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
  8. UhYeaOk

    You want to hear hate speech just watch the Bill Mahr show.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      Or the Sean Hannity Show.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • Blackflag

      Truth hurts, don't it? Maher is dead on. Just because you don't like it doesn't mean he is wrong. You are a living example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • Mark From Middle River

      Same with Sean Hannity.... both are a waste of time.

      September 12, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  9. agourar

    Is there noble pleases to abusing his race or his religion? ...Why this hatred against people who are far from America every dimension? ... Why there assault on the beliefs of others and then not be held accountable?... But take the blame on the victim ..?I lived with Muslims and with them i learned a lot and I did not find the best of them in serious relationships and love ... They respect all religions ...The responsables of this film gives a bad image of America ... And must be held accountable . ... Not should cover hatred and racism under the cover of freedom or a selliness art ... cuz art is sophisticated ... and not pettiness ... even u're muslims or cristian or jews or buddists or athiest or witnesses ...u're humain .. and u should respect your humanity and others beliefs or races ..Thank you dz

    September 12, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      No one forced you to watch the film.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • rastronomicals

      yes, yes I agree we should all say nice things about each other. But IF, if someone says something mean–and we'll all regret it–is it OK to kill them?

      September 12, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
  10. rob

    Well if the Muslims are leading by example, I guess it's OK to attack Muslims when they insult women, gays, Christians, Jews, freedom, democracy, and the American flag.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  11. Ben Franklin

    people have the right to insult each other with words.

    people do not have the right to kill each other.

    word do not kill people, people kill people.

    people claiming words are justification for killing is ridiculous, absurd and just plain wrong.

    this is cave man ideology. ...back to the dark ages!

    September 12, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      That's the problem. Muslim Fundamentalism is straight from the Dark Ages.
      Another atrocity motivated by religion.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • Kevin

      Words may not kill people but they get people killed. Always have and still do, even in this country. Like saying that guns don't kill people, because they do with just a little assistance.

      September 12, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  12. stock2mal

    It's amusing to see so many judgmental Christians denouncing Islam on here when they were doing the exact same things less than a thousand years ago. Religion is the disease, reason is the cure.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • UhYeaOk

      Really? A thousand years ago eh? Another stupid comment by a stupid person making a statement without an ounce of truth to it. Even if it were true it has nothing to do with what is occurring now in 2012 but that doesn't matter to ignorant people like you does it. You just like to hate.....

      September 12, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • rastronomicals

      The behavior of Saladin or Richard the Lion-Hearted is only *marginally* relevant here, dude.

      Not too tough to see that Christian Right > Radical Islam, though mind you I'm inviting neither to dinner.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • GodDU

      Are you saying that Christians today do this same here or are you saying that today's Islamist's are as primitive as Christians were a "1000" years ago? Funny how Atheists and Gays (two in the same for the most part) say there is no GOD, but science cant prove otherwise either. All you have is theory and hypothetical's and hate for anyone who believes in a higher being. Drag your knuckles back to Darwin hypocrite!

      September 12, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      stock2mal: "It's amusing to see so many judgmental Christians denouncing Islam on here when they were doing the exact same things less than a thousand years ago. Religion is the disease, reason is the cure."

      Correction: Religion is the disease, Jesus is the cure.

      September 12, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • biglifter

      No, it's amusing that anytime someone complains about Christians, it always starts out with "Long ago....". This is the year 2012, grandpa. Muslims are either blowing things up, or staying mute while it happens. Christians have bake sales and go to church. Your comparison of groups now and 500 years ago show that you are an idiot

      September 12, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • CW

      A thousand years ago. So can we punish you for the actions of your Neanderthal ancestors?

      September 13, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  13. UhYeaOk

    Here in America Christians are insulted on a daily basis by hollywood etc. Why is it when something offends the muslims it is hate speech but when someone wants to insult Christians it is totally ok to do so? Such hypocrisy from the so called "liberals".

    September 12, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • what?

      "BAAAAAWWWWW, LIBERULLS!!!" Poor baby, cry more.

      September 12, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
  14. Joseph

    What do I think? We should bomb Kaaba into the ground. The Jerusalem. Then the Vatican. Do away with the excuses people use to slaughter innocents and they'll have no excuse for it but their own monstrous behavior.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • Bill

      I think your comments prove this articles point perfectly...

      September 12, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • UhYeaOk

      Joseph, what a stupid and ignorant comment. You are no better than the people you complain about.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • .

      "Joseph, what a stupid and ignorant comment. You are no better than the people you complain about."

      pot meet kettle

      September 12, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

      Fool. And make martyrs out of all of them. You think THAT will be the end ? Try a History course.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      If you hate God that much Joseph, then maybe you should consider changing your name [or cnn alias]:

      Joseph – Hebrew – meaning- God shall add. The father of Jesus and husband of Mary in the Bible.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  15. kevin

    Islam is a hateful religion, and the protesters just made the case for the films maker.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • therealpeace2all


      " Islam is a hateful religion, and the protesters just made the case for the films maker. "

      And, this was something that most of the civilized world didn't already know ?


      September 12, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • skytag

      Rubbish. It's only a very, very small percentage of the world's Muslims who are reacting this way. The people who made this film have a lot of hate in them.

      September 12, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • therealpeace2all


      " Apparently not because many liberals in our civilized world deny this fact, our President being one of them. "

      Wow, overgeneralize much ? This is 'not' news, that if you put out something that makes fun of Muhammed, you are potentially endangering possibly yours or someone elses life somewhere.

      These people that made the video didn't "need" to have to prove this fact which was already known.

      Now... people are dead or injured because of it.

      And... your comment about 'liberals' and 'President Obama' was pure idiocy.


      September 12, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
  16. therealpeace2all

    Reblogged this on peace2alldotme.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • kevin

      Apparently not because many liberals in our civilized world deny this fact, our President being one of them.

      September 12, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  17. atlsouth56

    Gingrich is nothing but a puppet looking for a position in a Romney administration.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      And some free pills.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  18. AvdBerg

    The Ambassador’s killing was a culmination of the rising tensions and deepening problems between civilizations in a divided world. For a better understanding of the history of Islam and the Middle East we invite you to read the articles ‘World History and Developments in the Middle East’, ‘Clash of Civilizations’ and ‘CNN Belief Blog – Sign of the Times’, listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    All of the other pages and articles listed on our website explain how and by whom this whole world has been deceived as confirmed in Revelation 12:9.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:25 pm |

      This poster is a TROLL on this blog, they are liars and they are trying to sell their book to support their cult. Click the report abuse link to get rid of this TROLL!

      September 12, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • UhYeaOk

      @Troll Alert, how about we have you banned as well?

      September 12, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • what?

      @UhYea – he's been spamming this board a long time. Why don't you hush up and f off?

      September 12, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
  19. joe

    Who gets to decide 'hate' speech? The ADL?

    the first amendment is there for a reason. If someone's words are 'hateful' to you.. nut up...or shut up.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • skytag

      You are correct, the 1st Amendment is there for a reason, and this isn't it. The purpose is to ensure the government can suppress dissent, not so every hater can spread his hatred with propaganda films.

      September 12, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • skytag

      Sorry, obviously that should have been "can't suppress dissent."

      September 12, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
  20. lamb of dog

    How can they get all worked up about some video when they don't even know who made it. What a bunch of idiots.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • skytag

      Imagine someone made a film about your family for the purpose of getting people to hate you. Would you not care as long as you didn't know who made it?

      September 12, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.