White House press secretary Josh Earnest turned a question about the judgment of Charlie Hebdo in publishing Muhammad cartoons to a chiding about the “responsibilities” that come with free speech.
And, criticism of controversial cartoons is about protecting U.S. servicemembers.
At today’s press briefing, Earnest was asked if, in the wake of last week’s brutal terrorist attack on the satirical magazine’s French headquarters, the administration stood by Jay Carney’s 2012 comments: “We are aware that a French magazine published cartoons featuring a figure resembling the Prophet Muhammad. And, obviously, we have questions about the judgment of publishing something like this. We know that these images will be deeply offensive to many and have the potential to be inflammatory.”
Earnest said the full context of Carney’s comments needed to be understood. “What my predecessor also said, in the context of those very same comments, was that the publication of that material did not in any way justify an act of violence. That was true then, it was true last week, and it’s true today,” he said. “There is nothing that the individuals at that satirical magazine did that justified in any way the kind of violence that we saw in Paris last week. None.”
“At the same time, you know, it would not be the first time that there has been a discussion in this country about the kinds of responsibilities that go along with exercising the right to freedom of speech. And in the scenario, or in the circumstances in which my predecessor was talking about this issue, there was a genuine concern that the publication of some of those materials could put Americans abroad at risk, including American soldiers, at risk, and that is something that the commander in chief takes very seriously.”
Earnest stressed that Obama and his spokesman were “not then and will not now be shy about expressing a view or taking the steps that are necessary to try to advocate for the safety and security of our men and women in uniform.”
“But advocating and taking steps to protect American service personnel is different than criticizing or raising questions about the judgment underlying any satirical expression, be it to mock Islam or Christianity or Judaism or anything else,” a member of the press corps asked. “Where do you draw the line?”
“Well, I think it depends on the scenario,” Earnest replied.
“I think there are a couple of absolutes. The first is, is that the publication of any kind of material in no way justifies any act of violence, let alone an act of violence that we saw on the scale in Paris. And there is — this president, as the commander-in-chief, believes strongly in the responsibility that he has to advocate for our men and women in uniform, particularly if it’s going to make them safer, and the president takes very seriously his responsibility as commander-in-chief to do that, and that’s something that we’re going to continue to do in the future. Those are the absolutes, or at least two of them.”
But, Earnest continued, “when we are confronted with these kinds of scenarios where we’re balancing, you know, basic rights alongside very important responsibilities that must also be exercised, it’s going to always depend on the scenario.”
“But what won’t change is our view that that freedom of expression in no way justifies an act of violence the person who expressed a view, and the president considers the safety and security of our men and women in uniform to be something worth fighting for.”