The liberal panelists of MSNBC's The Cycle did their level best to help University of Pennsylvania religion professor Anthea Butler defend her now infamous tweet that the filmmaker behind the "Innocence of Muslims" video trailer on YouTube should be throw in jail. Co-host Toure Neblett went so far as to denounce the Twitter "mob" that deluged Butler's Twitter account with critical tweets. Only conservative S.E. Cupp pushed back against Butler by insisting that the YouTube video was a fig leaf justification by Islamists for violence.
"We think of this [free speech] as like an absolute right, but in fact there are limits.... So in this global world where a video clip can get spread around like wildfire, is it in fact going too far, is that beyond our constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of speech?" co-host Krystal Ball asked Butler. [MP3 audio here]
For her part, Butler failed to give a definite answer, but leaned towards "yes," by insisting that "the important conversation we should have" is "where are these limits of free speech" because "sometimes what we consider an individual right hurts us in communal kinds of ways" which is something "nobody wants to talk about right now."
Of course the whole idea of free speech is to protect politically unpopular speech, to protect individual speech from retaliation by a majority, or even a powerful, but vocal minority that can seize the levers of government power for the passions of the moment. Yet none of the liberal co-hosts pressed Butler on that point.
"Do you see the potential for similar incitement here [in the United States]," co-host Steve Kornacki posed to Butler, who used that occasion to blast folks who criticized her on Twitter:
What happened to me this week makes me realize that, you know, not everything that you can say, because somebody can pick that up and use that as a way to make an attack, and that's what happened to me this week. It was a coordinated attack.
And it was designed to inflame people, the way that the tweets were cherry-picked in order to do that. I mean, most everybody in my timeline had moved on, but when the wave came, it was crazy. So yeah, I do worry about that a little bit.
That's right, Butler just compared folks peacefully but sharply criticizing her on Twitter to the Islamist radicals who cherry-pick obscure, offensive videos on Twitter to inflame the Arab street.
At this point, co-host Toure expressed his sympathies with Butler, attacking the "bullies" of Twitter who dare to use the forum to publicly criticize liberals who make dopey statements:
I love Twitter. I think you love Twitter, but we both that it's not always a great place for nuanced intellectual thought. There's a lot of binary thinkers on the Twitter.
You were not attacked, as you noted, by a sort of organic response, it was a coordinated attack, a bully leading a mob to attack you, a coordinated attack. What do you think about Twitter and the way that a bully can use social media to target you when you're trying to talk about free speech?
Butler lamented that "somebody who gets attacked on Twitter" doesn't "really have a lot of recourse." "There can be all kinds of lies said about you that aren't really true," she lamented. Although that is true, and is true of blogs and other social media as well, it seems Butler was really upset because her actual tweets were heavily criticized by Twitter users, something she probably did not expect when she leveled them, even though Twitter is a publicly-accessible forum.
When conservative panelist S.E. Cupp finally got to say her piece, she disagreed with her liberal panelists that the violence in Egypt and Libya was about caused in some real sense by a low-budget YouTube video, saying it was just a convenient excuse for radical Islamists to use to justify their pre-planned orgy of violence:
The film is the excuse, and I'm not sure why we're bothering trying to teach gauzy lessons about free speech and religious tolerance to a group of people who clearly aren't interested or hold the same values.
Why do we always need to look inward when another group acts violently to our exercising free speech or something, as you pointed out, that was inadvertent [like previous instances of Koran burnings]?