Historically, religious wars have pitted one faith against another, but an Internet film with an anti-Islam theme has managed to draw several faiths into a battle that has claimed the lives of four U.S. Americans and as many from the areas across the Middle East. A question on the minds of many: "Is the producer of the anti-Islam film, 'Innocence of Muslims' Sam Bacile (who U.S. federal officials now believe to be Egyptian Coptic Christian Nakoula Basseley Nakoula) guilty of a crime committed in the USA?"
"Shouting fire in a crowded theatre" paraphrases the wording in U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr's opinion in the case Schenck v. United States in 1919. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that it was a violation of the Espionage Act of 1917, and later amended with the Sedition Act of 1918. This abridgment of free speech was permissible because it presented a "clear and present danger" to the government's recruitment efforts for military service during World War I.
In the Court's unanimous decision, Holmes wrote: "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. [...] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a 'clear and present danger' that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent."
Holmes concluded if there were a fire in a crowded theater, one might rightly indeed shout "Fire!" One may even be obliged to do so. Falsely shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater, when one believes there to be no fire in order to cause panic, was interpreted not to be protected by the First Amendment. The First Amendment holding in Schenck was later overturned by Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), which limited the scope of banned speech to that which would be directed to and likely to incite imminent lawless action, such as a riot.
Did the anti-Islam film, which was produced in the USA, provoke the attacks on U.S. Embassies in the Middle East this week that resulted in lawless actions -- and the deaths of four U.S. citizens -- on U.S. sovereign soil? In a country founded on the principles of freedom of speech and religion does the right to free speech allow any of us to demean the religions of others, even when they understand that such actions might result in civil disobedience, terrorism, or murder?
When will our religious beliefs allow us to live and let live and to treat others with the respect and courtesies that our respective religions teach us? Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Bahá'í, Buddhism (and others) all seem to ask their adherents to seek enlightenment through a number of universal truths, expressed almost literally in every major religion: the Golden Rule, Love Thy Neighbor, Speak Truth, Do Not Covet, Do Not Kill and many more that are common to these religions.
Are we as inhabitants of an ever shrinking world capable of divorcing chauvinism from religion? It could prove to be the salvation of humankind and improve the possibility of peace on earth -- even if we don't speak a common language or pray to the same God.
Jim Estrada is CEO of ECG in Austin, TX, a PR firm specializing in Corporate/Community Relations. The former corporate executive and TV news reporter is the author of "The ABCs & Ñ of America's Cultural Evolution" (Tate, December 2012). Author's website