Limits on Free Speech? A Dangerous Message

Diplomats abroad represent the government of the United States. They must, therefore, speak with tact, but also with honesty. After all, most of the people they’re speaking to have no firsthand experience with the U.S. Our diplomats are teaching foreigners about America. In fact, the “primary purpose of United States public diplomacy is to explain, promote, and defend American principles to audiences abroad.”

So let’s consider the message our government sent with this statement that the American Embassy in Egypt put out on Tuesday: “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims—as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”

It was speaking out against a low-budget film that has apparently been screened only once, to an audience of about a dozen people, clips of which have circulated online. The embassy seems to have been attempting to reduce tensions in the region. That obviously didn’t work, as a mob soon stormed the embassy compound anyway.

The bigger problem is that the embassy statement makes it seem as though the U.S. government is taking an official position that it opposes speech that may “offend believers” of a particular faith (of course, speech that one person finds offensive, another will consider banal). The State Department backed away from that claim after the attack. “The statement by Embassy Cairo was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government,” an official said. But it was too late. Americans understand that our government doesn’t have the authority to ban offensive speech. But foreign people may not be aware of that.

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