Freedom of speech: Law and 'Innocence of Muslims'

Whether we are talking about a crude anti- Islam film or satirical cartoons of the Prophet, we are delving into the realm of “defamation of religion.”

Screenshot from 'Innocence of Muslims' 370 (photo credit: YouTube Screenshot)
Screenshot from 'Innocence of Muslims' 370
(photo credit: YouTube Screenshot)
The recent storm across the Arab world in response to the emergence online of an amateur anti-Islam film has once again brought the debate regarding freedom of expression and its boundaries to the fore.
Whether we are talking about a crude anti- Islam film or satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, we are delving into the realm of “defamation of religion.” In recent years, the Organization for Islamic Co-operation and the Arab League have vehemently advocated the criminalization of “defamation of religion,” as further evidenced by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s latest call for a global ban on blasphemy before the UN General Assembly. Much of the democratic world, including the US, has strongly opposed this proposition and it is undoubtedly in the interests of promoting religious freedom and tolerance that they continue to do so.
Recently, MK Taleb a-Sanaa (United Arab List-Ta’al) and others filed a petition in the Jerusalem District Court demanding the court issue a temporary injunction against Google, blocking the anti-Islam film. The judge denied the request and set a hearing on the question of a permanent injunction for October 15.
While the Israeli courts deliberate on the issue, it is interesting to consider what limitations are placed on freedom of expression in other liberal democracies, including the United Kingdom and the United States.
IN THE UK, freedom of expression is enshrined in Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998. This right is not absolute and is subject to numerous restrictions, including, for example, anti-terrorism legislation, criminal sanctions imposed on speech designed to incite racial hatred, legislation relating to obscenity, public order and defamation. It is noteworthy that the UK abolished its archaic law against blasphemy in 2008.
Perhaps most relevant is the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, which created a new offense: the use of threatening words or behavior or displays, or publishing or broadcasting any threatening material with the intent to foment religious hatred.
The House of Lords amended the Bill to include a provision safeguarding free speech, stating that these offenses are not intended to limit discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule or insult or abuse of particular religions or belief systems. The Muslim Council of Britain unsuccessfully opposed these amendments.
The House of Lords changes ensured that religious hate speech does not attract the same level of legal protection as racial hate speech. Inciting racial hatred merely requires that the words used be insulting or abusive to be punishable. Religious hatred requires the behavior to be threatening. The English Jewish community has successful argued that Jews are a race, and so enjoy the protection of the laws forbidding words of racial hatred.
In the US, the First Amendment to the Constitution unequivocally protects the freedom of expression, affording the press no greater or lesser freedom than the private individual. Firmly entrenched Constitutional principles uphold the notion that speech, however hateful, should not be subject to censorship or punishment for its content alone. Restrictions on the content of speech are only valid if they are shown to be necessary to achieve a compelling government interest.
Speech which can be restricted includes that which is obscene, defamatory, incites imminent lawless action or constitutes “fighting words,” criminal intimidation or harassment. But freedom of speech is often held as the more important principle.
Recent case law in both England and the US illustrates that the UK is more ready to restrict freedom of speech to protect some other good. In the US, it is clear that on balance freedom of expression and a free press trumps other values. For example, in the field of defamation, the celebrated case of The New York Times vs. Sullivan has significantly eroded “defamation” as a significant restriction on freedom of speech.
In the UK, in the case of Abdull vs. DPP, a group of Muslim protestors had been prosecuted under section 5 of the Public Order Act for shouting “go to hell,” “baby killers,” “rapists” and “murderers” at British soldiers during a military parade. The claimants argued that their convictions violated their right to freedom of expression.
LORD JUSTICE Gross noted that their words presented a “very clear threat to public order” and that they were “potentially defamatory and undoubtedly inflammatory,” and ultimately held that their actions exceeded the boundaries of legitimate protest. In a similar case, a member of Muslims Against Crusades who burned poppies during a two-minute silence on Remembrance Day was convicted of the same offense.
Conversely, in Snyder vs. Phelps, the US Supreme Court upheld the rights of members of Westboro Baptist Church to protest at the funerals of US soldiers and display placards reading, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “You’re Going to Hell.”
Returning to the infamous anti-Islam film, there does not seem to be any doubt that in the US, the maker of the film, as well as subsequent publishers (Google/YouTube), are cloaked with the full protections of the First Amendment. The White House – while proclaiming support for free speech, tried and failed to force Google and YouTube to remove the film.
In the UK however, the position is less certain.
The English court might give a gag order a more sympathetic hearing, but would still be very slow to suppress such a film.
The English courts might only ban a film which not only stirs up religious hatred, but is also threatening. The US would probably favor freedom of speech even over a threatening film. Both jurisdictions would permit mere ridicule or insult of religion. Crucially, both jurisdictions clearly hold that the correct forum for resolving this debate must be in the courts and the legislature, not on the street.
Lucie Hecquer and Trevor Asserson are lawyers with Asserson Law Offices, Israel’s largest UK law firm.