Center for Strategic Communication

An Islamic flag placed on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo during a heated demonstration on Tuesday. This and other images of the protest were tweeted as the protests unfolded. Photo: @Kristenchick

[Update, 9 a.m., Sept. 12: U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens has been killed by a mob in Benghazi. There are reports that other Americans are dead. The Pentagon is not able to confirm as yet reports that Marines are dead or that additional U.S. military assets are en route. As soon as I have something solid, I will report it in a separate post that will link back to this one.

A statement released by the White House from President Obama reads in part: “I have directed my Administration to provide all necessary resources to support the security of our personnel in Libya, and to increase security at our diplomatic posts around the globe. While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.”]

When Egyptians stormed the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, the diplomats took to their computers and mobile devices — and blamed an American video for stirring up the locals. But the Embassy’s tweets against the movie and “religious incitement” instantly came in for more criticism, from Americans who thought the diplomats had conceded far, far too much — like basic principles of free speech.

An estimated 2,000 protesters breached the walls of the U.S. embassy and burned an American flag on Tuesday, replacing it with an Islamic flag. The protesters were said to be enraged by a film made inside the United States that “depicts Muhammad as a fraud, and shows him having sex and calling for massacres,” as the Associated Press put it. The United States government had nothing to do with making the film — except for guaranteeing the freedom of its citizens to issue offensive speech. The embassy in Cairo had nothing to do with it.

Except, apparently before the protests broke out in force, it issued a statement that denounced the film as “religious incitement.” Tying the condemnation to the 9/11 anniversary, the Embassy statement read, in part: “Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.” It tweeted the statement, posted it to its Arabic-language Facebook page — and stirred a hornet’s nest.

If the statement was meant to calm tensions in Cairo, it didn’t stop the protests — which spread to U.S. diplomatic outposts in neighboring Libya. It also conspicuously didn’t call the protests “religious incitement,” nor did it condemn the incursion onto sovereign American soil. But conspicuously — and alarmingly to several Americans on Twitter — it didn’t make an effort to defend the principle that even offensive speech deserves toleration, a basic democratic value that the Obama administration is supposed to be promoting while a revolutionary fervor sweeps through the Middle East.

Writing at the conservative National Review, Nina Shea, a human-rights advocate formerly with Freedom House, a nonprofit that promotes open societies, blogged that the Embassy’s statement “redefines and limits freedom of speech to that speech which others, and, explicitly Muslims, do not find offensive.” Shea called for the U.S. ambassador in Egypt, Anne Patterson — a veteran of the beleaguered U.S. embassy in Pakistan as well — to resign.

Others on Twitter didn’t go that far, but they expressed incredulity that the embassy didn’t stick up for the fundamental democratic principle of free speech. Aki Peritz, a Danger Room pal and former U.S. intelligence analyst, tweeted, “Upon reflection, a good future press release might state, ‘We condemn the morons who overran part of our Embassy earlier today.’” Hisham Melman, the Washington bureau chief of the al-Arabiya news channel and a prominent pundit, was incredulous that the Embassy was “condemning those who hurt Muslim feelings but not the attack??,” calling it “extreme pol[itical] correctness.” The hashtag #USEmbassyCairo lit up with opinions.

The Embassy stood its ground — virtually, if not physically. While engaging with critics, the operator of @USEmbassyCairo shot back that “Of course we condemn breaches of our compound, we’re the ones actually living through this.” And it effectively doubled down on its initial statement: “Sorry, but neither breaches of our compound or angry messages will dissuade us from defending freedom of speech AND criticizing bigotry.” Except some might wonder where the defense of free speech from the Embassy initially was.

The State Department has come under criticism in the past for being slow to adapt to the social-media world. It didn’t have that problem in Cairo: Its Twitter and Facebook engagement was rapid and consistent. But that rapidity may have outraced its more traditional diplomatic responsibilities to insist on the inviolability of its Embassy and to stick up for basic American values — even when the speech in question is gross.