The Middle East probably isn't fertile ground for a civics lesson on free speech American-style, especially with angry crowds storming the walls of U.S. embassies and consulates.
But as Americans mourn the deaths of four countrymen killed during an armed assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, they are forced to face a difficult question: Will U.S. and other Western diplomats always be at the mercy of passions that can turn violent on the Arab street in response to religious provocation?
Now comes the murder of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, a vile act which may have been calculated, and anti-U.S. protests in other countries over the video "Innocence of Muslims." All that is evidence that the Arab Spring, which liberated so many countries from dissent-crushing dictatorships, has yet to produce Jeffersonian democracies that tolerate unpleasant speech.
The rioting men surrounding U.S. embassies overseas are a minority, but they speak for like-minded others who wonder why America doesn't clamp down on expression that insults the Prophet Muhammad and the religion of Islam.
The answer is simple. Free speech is a fundamental 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, unfortunately, can be difficult for people of other cultures to understand.
During a speech in Morocco, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed her disgust with the anti-Islam video, but said its provocative nature did not exonerate the attackers.
She reminded the audience of America's tradition of free expression and that government cannot stop citizens from stating their views "no matter how distasteful they may be."
For many in the Middle East, such tolerance may be too much to expect at their stage of political development, but it doesn't give them a veto over the free-speech rights of Americans.