Religious studies professor Anthea Butler has been forced to spend the last few days, while on sabbatical, dealing with a social media controversy over recent Middle East riots.
Following a tweet and subsequent USA Today op-ed, Butler has been bombarded by those who disagree with her opinion regarding the controversial film, “Innocence of Muslims,” through various forms of media. The Religious Studies Department has received threatening calls, and Butler has been working with University security to ensure her safety.
On Sept. 12, Butler implied in a tweet that the creator of the controversial film “Innocence of Muslims,” which mocked the prophet Mohammed, should be arrested. The original tweet read, “Good Morning. How soon is Sam Bacile going to be in jail folks? I need him to go now. When Americans die because you are stupid…”
The film sparked violent and deadly anti-American protests across the Muslim world, although U.S. and Libyan officials say that they may have also been planned in advance. On Sept. 11, multiple members of the American Embassy in Libya were killed in the violence, including the American ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Protests have broken out in other areas of the world as well.
The film is now being “used as an excuse” for the widespread violence, Butler said. Some also speculate that the riots, exactly 11 years after the Sept. 11 attacks, were no coincidence.
Butler’s tweets went relatively unnoticed until they were picked up by a website called Twitchy.com on Sept. 12. The blog is owned and founded by conservative blogger and political commentator Michelle Malkin.
After Twitchy posted Butler’s tweet to its site, it spurred an influx of retweets and replies. Butler has since made her Twitter account private.
According to social media blog SocialSeer.com, there were 1,176 tweets that mention @AntheaButler on Sept. 12. It began at 21 tweets at 8 a.m. that day, rose to 137 tweets at noon and peaked at 297 at 4 p.m.
A Twitchy entry calls Butler a “coward” and “terrorist apologist.”
Butler claims Twitchy is a site that “reads Twitter feeds… for ‘sensational’ content” and “blasts out ‘news’ that is important or troubling to them.” She believes Twitchy especially targets people who have a more liberal lens.
Twitchy calls itself a Twitter curation site that tells readers “who said what” in today’s news cycle and entertainment media.
Butler did not appreciate “this harassment on a large scale,” she said.
“In this particularly highly charged election, that’s how it all happened. They tried to shut me up with their own free speech rights,” she added. “In 140 characters, even 350 words, it is really hard to have a sustained discussion about a topic like this.”
In her 350-word USA Today op-ed, Butler wrote that she called for Sam Bacile’s arrest “not because I am against the First Amendment. My tweets reflected my exasperation that as a religion professor, it is difficult to teach the facts when movies such as Bacile’s ‘Innocence of Muslims’ are taken as both truth and propaganda, and used against innocent Americans.”
Sam Bacile claimed to be the maker of the film and an “Israeli Jew.” Authorities have since discovered that Bacile is a pseudonym for his real name, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula.
Butler’s piece was an “Opposing View” piece to a USA Today editorial which stated that the film’s message —even though it was “crude” and “bigoted” — counts as free speech.
Butler disagreed that the film should be protected under the First Amendment because it “is not about expressing a personal opinion about Islam. It denigrates the religion by depicting the faith’s founder in several ludicrous and historically inaccurate scenes to incite and inflame viewers. Even the film’s actors say they were duped,” she wrote.
Butler’s tweets and op-ed incited national debate over the balance and tension between American’s most beloved right to free speech and international security.
The academic community seems torn on the issue, debating what types of rhetoric should be protected under the freedom of speech, especially when it comes with deadly consequences and is international in scope.
International relations professor Anna Viden said of the film’s rhetoric, “Freedom of speech is certainly important but if you know that there is this volatile situation, you have a responsibility to not ignite that kind of situation.”
She added, “I don’t think that this is a matter of free speech anymore. You have a responsibility for what you say.”
Other professors have weighed in on the issue as well. Yale Law professor Adam Cohen wrote in Time magazine that the film “appears to have been made with the express intention of viciously insulting a figure much of the world reveres — and of sparking an angry response.”
However, Cohen does not agree with Butler that the film is outside the realm of free speech. “Under the Constitution, our default setting is to protect speech — even hate-filled and violent speech. A lot of countries take a different approach,” he said.