What does Anthea Butler think “freedom of speech” means?

Ed Brayton and PZ are already on this, but I wanted to throw my hat into the ring as well.

Muslims are rioting and killing over a poorly made movie that denigrates Islam.  Presumably the movie negatively impacts Islam more than Muslims rioting and killing over being insulted, which is quite a feat.

Anyway, a religious studies teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, Anthea Butler, thinks the film’s maker, Sam Bacile, should be arrested.

So why did I tweet that Bacile should be in jail? The “free speech” in Bacile’s film is not about expressing a personal opinion about Islam. It denigrates the religion by depicting the faith’s founder in several ludicrous and historically inaccurate scenes to incite and inflame viewers. Even the film’s actors say they were duped.

Bacile’s movie is not the first to denigrate a religious figure, nor will it be the last. The Last Temptation of Christ was protested vigorously. The difference is that Bacile indirectly and inadvertently inflamed people half a world away, resulting in the deaths of U.S. Embassy personnel.

The barometer for what can or cannot be said (not to be confused with what should or should not be said) is not how many people it pisses off.  Indeed, the very concept of free speech exists to defend speech that may offend someone.  Nobody needs protection for inoffensive speech.

There’s no demand from Anthea Butler for the arrests of those holding signs calling for the heads of those who insult their prophet.  Perhaps after the shitty filmmaker who has never killed anyone is behind bars we can worry about that other lot.

Priorities: religion fucks with them.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • http://jonvoisey.net Jon Voisey

    If that’s truly the measure of how much we should restrict speech, by how many people die as an indirect result, then what do we say of those that wrote the Declaration of Independence?

    • Adam

      Or the Bible or Koran?

    • Makoto

      Perhaps you might notice a teeny tiny difference between the Declaration of Independence and a poorly made film on YouTube. Hint – one lead to the formation of a country, which yes, resulted in many people dying. The other is a poorly made YouTube film.. and people died! No matter your personal support of the first amendment, you didn’t die, but several others have because of this stupid film. What do you say to their relatives – their parents, their siblings, their children? “Sure, your relative died, but hey, first amendment, am I right? We shouldn’t restrict speech even though you lost a loved one over a stupid YouTube film.”

      I do agree, the film itself did not cause the deaths – it was likely more about a few people riling up their followers and using the film as a trigger point. But the fact is, they used the film as a trigger point. And the other fact is, people died, and it was fairly easy to predict that a film like this would lead to such deaths. A better approach would be to work with other countries so the followers don’t riot over such films, not just release films and say “hey, free speech” when people die.

      • http://jonvoisey.net Jon Voisey

        I’d say the honest truth: The fault lies with the people who are so far off their rocker as to think that a film depicting them as vile and violent is worse than them being vile and violent, even if it was poor judgement to throw rocks around a hornet’s nest.

        • SuperMental

          Fantastic. Well put.

      • NakedAnthropologist

        @Makoto: I’m sorry that people died and feel sympathy for their families as well – but your point is ridiculous. That’s like saying that since I don’t like people insulting my cat, I’m going to kill people who may be indirectly related to other people who post lolcatz on the internet. That’s ridiculous, just as Muslims killing innocent people over a fucking youtube video. I find what diarrhea that spews out of Pat Robertson’s mouth extremely offensive, but I don’t kill people who own a television. The simple fact of the matter is that most Islamic countries do not have anything close to resembling free speech and are theocratic in nature. That means if a religious/political figure wants to play the victim card, he (its usually a he) goes online and finds something “offensive”, shows it to his followers, and stirs up trouble. People died because some Muslims need to get the fuck over themselves and realize that the world does not revolve around them or their religion – nobody is required to treat them with kid gloves. Its a fucking youtube video; the fact that innocent people were murdered over this is just one example of how theocratic government and lack of education causes immense pain – pain that could have easily been avoided if the perpetrators had simply ignored the video. That’s all they have to do – ignore it; like other adults ignore the inconsequential things that they don’t like.

  • invivoMark

    But which speech caused these people’s deaths? The guy who made the video? The people in Libya who saw the video and showed it to their more extremist friends? Those extremist friends who passed the video to people whose words had sway over the actions of others? Those people who then intentionally incited others to violence? Or can this work in the other direction: can we blame those whose words, written or otherwise, drove Sam Bacile to his conclusions about Islam? Can we blame the news media for reporting on religiously inspired violence? Can we blame Pastor Terry Jones, or Anders Breivik, or Salman Rushdie, or Christopher Hitchens? Can we blame the authors of the Koran itself?

    No, once we start blaming people whose acts of expression are indirectly and unexpectedly causing a surge of irrational violence, we are stepping into the realm of the absurd.

  • Rob

    Although that quote would likely be approved of by Voltaire, he did not say it. #correction.

  • John Horstman

    Yahweh’s beard, really? REALLY? Un-fucking-intentionally triggering a violent backlash half a world away is cause for imprisonment? So, if I murder Butler for sullying my consciousness with such drivel, we should throw her corpse in jail because her words precipitated my unreasonable violent reaction? Or would that not fly because my response was direct instead of fucking indirect? This might just be some of the craziest shit I’ve ever heard, and I’ve listened to speeches by Milton Friedman, watched parts of Republican primary debates and conventions, and had an hour-long conversation with the severely manic and schizophrenic guy that used to live in my neighborhood. Anthea Butler, your thinking mechanism is very, very broken, and you should avoid making your thoughts known in a public venue ever again, lest the shame you bring to humanity trigger mass-seppuku.

    • RuQu

      You say it was unintentional. That is hard to judge.

      We already have limits on Free Speech when it incites to violence. You cannot rile up a lynch mob and then go home while they murder someone and say “I was just talking.” You are criminally responsible. You cannot yell “Fire” in a theater.

      Are these the same things? Intent certainly factors here, but as an Egyptian Christian, the author here clearly had first hand experience with the culture and was more cognizant of the implications of his speech than if he was some random American from Alabama.

      I’m a firm believer in Free Speech, and I’m not saying I think this guy should be arrested. Are the murders in the Islamic world and their leaders who further incited the masses equally morally responsible (or more)? Yes. Is the irrationality of religious belief at the heart of this problem? Certainly. I’m just saying that his intentions could have been to do exactly what he did, incite to violence, and we already have laws against that.


      Clearly his conviction here would set new precedent and likely go to the Supreme Court because his hateful speech was intended to trigger violence not by his audience, but by those he insulted. Personally, I think that’s too much of a stretch and would be struck down, but the possibility is there.

  • JohnnieCanuck

    Sam Bacile is apparently a pseudonym, possibly with more than one person behind it, so it might be better to straighten that out before calling for an arrest.

  • SuperMental

    Not the first uninformed piece I’ve seen from Anthea Butler. She has a tendency for it..
    Then again, faith=Pretending to know things you don’t know (by Peter Boghossian.)