The swiftness with which federal authorities went after a filmmaker linked to an anti-Islamic movie has some troubling overtones.
U.S. probation authorities quickly identified and targeted Nakoula Basseley Nakoula as the man behind Innocence of Muslims. The inflammatory film set off riots and violent protests across North Africa and the Mideast by Muslims angry with its negative portrayal of Muhammad, the founder of Islam.
The low-budget film posted on YouTube in July garnered little attention until a mob attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and killed four U.S. Consulate staff members. The film may have been used by al-Qaida or its sympathizers to whip up anti-American sentiments, provoking the attack timed for the 9-11 observances in the United States. However, several other American missions have also been attacked in the past week.
The intolerable attacks had the unintended consequence of giving the offensive film even greater world exposure, raising questions about its producer, initially identified as Sam Bacile. That is apparently a pseudonym for Mr. Nakoula, who may have engaged actors under false pretenses of producing a film with an entirely different script and plot.
But it also attracted the attention of federal probation officials, because Mr. Nakoula has a 2010 conviction for bank fraud charges in California. As part of his sentence, he was ordered not to use computers or the Internet for five years without permission of probation officers. If the film violates the terms of his probation, he could be returned to prison.
Mr. Nakoula submitted to what authorities called a voluntary interview. Fearful for his life, though, he was escorted in disguise by police from his house. He was not arrested, but did not return home after the interview was completed.
Would federal authorities even be interested if not for the rioting and Muslim outrage? Their sudden interest could be construed as appeasing world opinion. No matter how objectionable the film is, Mr. Nakoula was exercising his First Amendment rights. Whether he violated probation has yet to be determined. For that he can be prosecuted. But care must be taken that the legal system is not being used to punish him for violating religious sensitivities or using his free speech rights in a distasteful manner.