Lesson for the street


The Middle East probably isn't fertile ground just now for a civics lesson on American-style free speech, as angry crowds storm U.S. embassies and consulates.

As Americans mourn the deaths of four countrymen who were killed last week during an armed assault on the U.S. consulate in Libya, they face an uncomfortable question: Will American and other Western diplomats always be at the mercy of passions that can foment in an instant on the "Arab street," in response to religious provocation?

With the murder of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens -- a vile act that may have been calculated -- and anti-U.S. protests in other countries over the video Innocence of Muslims, it is evident that the Arab Spring that liberated so many countries from dissent-crushing dictatorships over the past year has yet to produce Jeffersonian democracies that tolerate unpleasant, even offensive, speech.

The angry men who surround U.S. embassies overseas are a minority. But they speak for many more who wonder why America doesn't clamp down on expression that insults the Prophet Mohammed and the religion of Islam.

The answer is simple: Free speech is a basic American right, regardless of the content of the message. Even when a person's words or images deserve condemnation, the Constitution and more than two centuries of court decisions have held that such speech must be allowed. That is often hard for people of other cultures to understand.

During a speech last week in Morocco, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed her disgust with the film. But its provocative nature, she added, did not exonerate the attackers.

She reminded the audience of America's tradition of free expression, and asserted that government cannot stop citizens from expressing their views, "no matter how distasteful they may be."

For many people in the Middle East, such tolerance may be too much to expect at their stage of political development. But they don't have a veto over the free-speech rights of Americans -- or license to murder innocent people.