CERRITOS, Calif. — While the man behind an anti-Islam movie that ignited violence across the Middle East likely would face swift punishment in his native Egypt for making the film, in America the government is in the thorny position of protecting his free-speech rights and looking out for his safety even while condemning his message.
It’s a paradox that makes little sense to those protesting and calling for blood. To them, the movie dialogue denigrating the Prophet Muhammad is all the evidence needed to pursue justice — vigilante or otherwise — against Nakoula Bassely Nakoula, an American citizen and Coptic Christian originally from Egypt.
In America, there’s nothing illegal about making a movie that disparages a religious figure. And that has the Obama administration walking a diplomatic tightrope less than two months before the election: how to express outrage over the movie’s treatment of Islam without compromising the most basic American freedom.
“The thing that makes this particularly difficult for the United States is that … we treat what most of us would refer to as hate speech as constitutionally protected speech, and Americans don’t appreciate, I think, how unusual this position seems in the rest of the world,” said Lawrence E. Rosenthal, a professor at Chapman University’s School of Law in Orange, Calif.
The situation also raises vexing questions about how far the government can and should go to protect someone who exercises the First Amendment right. In the past, for example, police have stood guard to ensure Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members could march without being attacked for their views.
But Mr. Nakoula’s case invites scrutiny because the free speech he exercised with the film “Innocence of Muslims” has had such far-reaching and violent implications.
If the government were to protect Mr. Nakoula overtly, it could be seen by some as tacit approval of the film and further inflame protests. Leaving him to fend for himself could have deadly consequences. There are examples of violence against others who have written or spoken against Muhammad.
White House spokesman Jay Carney stressed Tuesday that the video was not connected to the U.S. government and suggested it was being “exploited by groups that have an interest in creating chaos and destabilizing their local government or attacking the West or the United States.”
Egypt’s general prosecutor on Tuesday issued arrest warrants for seven expatriate Egyptian Coptic Christians, including Mr. Nakoula, and referred them to trial on charges of harming national unity, insulting and publicly attacking Islam and spreading false information. The charges carry the death penalty.
So far, the U.S. government has acknowledged offering Mr. Nakoula very limited assistance. Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies escorted Mr. Nakoula to an interview with federal probation officials. They did so in the dead of night and allowed Mr. Nakoula to cover his face. Early Monday, deputies answered his family’s request for help leaving the house where they’d been holed up for five days so they could reunite with the 55-year-old filmmaker. All remain in hiding.
Department spokesman Steve Whitmore stressed the agency is not providing protective custody. He referred questions to federal authorities, who have declined to comment.
Jody Armour, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law, said it’s “not unusual at all for the government to step in and give a citizen in distress or danger special protection, but it can’t be unlimited. They’re going to have to strike a balance.”
A 14-minute trailer for the film posted on YouTube sparked violence in the Middle East, including an attack in Libya in which a U.S. ambassador was killed. Federal officials told the AP they have concluded Mr. Nakoula, who has served federal prison time for check fraud, was behind the movie.
Furor over the film has been widespread. Bahrain protesters used Twitter to organize demonstrations that included burning American flags in the nation that hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. Pakistan’s conservative Islamist parties sent out text messages and mosque announcements and made phone calls to bring out protest crowds, including about 1,000 people in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Sunday and hundreds who rushed the U.S. consulate in Karachi, sparking clashes with police in which one demonstrator was killed.
“Yes, we understand the First Amendment and all of this stuff,” wrote Khalid Amayreh, a prominent Islamist commentator and blogger in Hebron on the West Bank. “But you must also understand that the Prophet [for us] is a million times more sacred than the American Constitution.”