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October 12, 2012

Profs weigh rights, politics at stake in Anti-Islamic video talk

A panel of U of C professors discussed the legal and cultural implications of the anti-Islamic video that sparked violent protests across the Middle East last month during a teach-in in Kent Hall on Wednesday evening.

At the teach-in, a demonstration meant to inform the public about a given issue, the panelists spoke mainly about the controversial video’s intent to create civil unrest and its place in a modern world torn between free speech and tolerance.

The video, which was directed by an American Coptic Christian named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, depicts the prophet Muhammad as a “woman plunderer.” Demonstrations erupted across the Middle East in the wake of the video being posted on YouTube, eventually resulting in the deaths of several people, including US Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens.

Law professor Aziz Huq discussed international calls for the United States to punish Nakoula for making the video. He argued that Nakoula was protected by the First Amendment, and that the American courts could not punish speech simply because it was offensive. He also noted that group libel is not formally recognized in the Constitution.

“No one doubts speech can cause great pain,” he said. The courts are “not in the business of weighing harms” with regard to speech, he added.

Students in the audience agreed that the anti-Islamic video is crass and insulting, but they were unsure as to how the United States should respond.

Michael Sells, the John Henry Barrows Professor of Islamic History and Literature in the Divinity School, argued that the video reflected a larger anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States. Sells said that the video was a “political attack” on President Barack Obama and United States Attorney General Eric Holder and was connected to an “Islamic conspiracy against them.”

The third speaker was Iza Hussin, an assistant professor in the political science department. The teach-in was co-sponsored by the Spiritual Life Office and the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality/Civil Islam Program.

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