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Editorial: Freedom of speech is precious -- and sometimes complex

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks from the

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks from the State Department following the killing of US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and 3 staff members in Benghazi, Libya. (Sept. 12, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

Is it the place of our government to condemn a message, even a hateful and incendiary one, that a U.S. citizen is communicating in a fully legal and constitutionally protected manner?

Yes, in certain specific situations, such comments from the government are not only reasonable, they're probably required. But they must be communicated in a way that shows how bedrock and imperative the right of free speech is in our nation.

Demonstrations have rocked the Middle East in response to a crude 14-minute video, posted on YouTube by an American, that degraded the Islamic prophet Muhammad. There have been many more deaths beyond those at the consulate in Libya, where the killers may not have been motivated by the video at all.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at a briefing on Sept. 13, said, "To us, to me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible. It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose: to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage."

The video is protected speech, and the freedom to express it is a core national value. Having a highly placed official condemn such speech feels like it could "chill" such expressions.

Yet Clinton's message had to be said. When a message made in the United States, like this video, gets tremendous attention and does not represent our nation's policies of tolerance toward all religions and of building productive relationships with Muslim nations, that has to be made clear. Failing to do so could imply official support for such hatred.

Clinton also explained that the freedom to express such a message is one our government would neither impede nor apologize for.

The upshot of such communication? Libya's interim government ordered several militias that were behind violence broken up Sunday, in response to a groundswell of Libyan citizens who were furious that those four Americans were killed, and angry at their government's failure to curb the chaos. Those forcing the Libyan government to act understood the byplay between American policy, American liberties and the sometimes nasty fruits of those liberties. And that's what makes such explanations worthwhile.