To be sure, Jones’ actions have consequences. When he first publicized a video of his Quran burning in March, protestors in northern Afghanistan attacked the United Nations Assistance Mission, killing 30 people, including seven UN workers, and injuring over 150. More recently, Jones--I will not call him a Pastor--attempted to burn a Quran in the public space outside the Islamic Center for America in Dearborn, Michigan, having legally obtained a permit. Before his burning began, however, Jones was told by the city that he could only protest in one of several far-away “free-speech zones” in the city, or else pay a $100,000 peace bond. When Jones refused, the city issued a warrant for his arrest and he was brought to jail.
No one wants to hear what Jones has to say: not Muslims, not Christians, not Jews, not atheists, not Americans, not anyone. Yet as the ACLU noted in the brief it filed in support of Jones, the very core of the First Amendment, of free speech in America, is that we may not limit others’ speech because we dislike it. We must not censor Jones because extremists react in extreme ways, or because his views are unpopular.
There are several legal precedents to support Jones’ freedom of expression. In 1992’s Forsyth County, Georgia v. The Nationalist Movement, the Supreme Court struck down a local ordinance which placed excessive financial burden on speech because it might have caused a riot. Dearborn’s insistence on an exorbitant peace bond is a perfect example of the kind of ordinance ruled unconstitutional in Forsyth.
As to whether or not the actual burning of a Quran might count as protected speech, there is simply no question. First and foremost, it must be recognized that Jones’ intention was not to incite violence but to express anger. Though the riots in Afghanistan were hugely tragic and regrettable, they cannot be blamed on Jones’ act alone, for he did not specifically demand such brutal behavior. Moreover, in Texas v. Johnson and United States v. Eichman, the Supreme Court ruled that a symbol as revered as the American flag could be burned in public as an act of expression. Writing in concurrence with the Johnson decision, Justice Kennedy opined that “it is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt.”
It is similarly poignant but fundamental that America, a bastion of religious freedom, must allow Jones to set the Quran aflame. A country which protects and even cherishes religion must give equal thought and protection to those who vigorously protest it. Without a doubt, Jones’ actions constitute one of the most absurdly unproductive methods of protest imaginable, but they are expressive conduct nonetheless. To censor them through prior restraint is to abandon the principles of free speech on which this country was founded and with which it has flourished.
As the Court’s recent ruling in Snyder v. Phelps affirmed, it is not the American way to fight hate speech with censorship, but rather with more speech. This is, in fact, the opinion of the leaders of Dearborn’s Muslim community, as well as the Council on American-Islam Relations, which spoke out against the city’s well-intentioned but poorly-planned efforts to prevent Jones’ protest. They understand that an encroachment upon any American’s civil liberties--even if that American is utterly stupid and barbaric--is a threat to the First Amendment rights of every citizen. Once the government begins choosing which speech to allow and which speech to ban, it is only a matter of time before our own preferred means of expression are criminalized.
So grant Jones his rights and give him his permit. If extremists in Afghanistan react violently, let us prove to the country and to the world that we, as a people, are not Terry Jones: that he does not speak for us; that we are impervious to his hate; that we are not so insecure as to throw him in jail for his ignorance. If Muslims are offended, as well they deserve to be, let them remember that the very liberties at play here are the very ones which assure them their own religious freedoms. For everyone else watching the Jones saga unfold, do not sit by idly. Shout your own chant. Wave your own sign. Raise your own voice, louder and brighter and stronger than Jones’.
Let there be no mistake about my belief that burning a Quran is utterly deplorable behavior, a most egregious insult. But, to borrow from Justice Scalia’s majority opinion in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, we as a country must redress this indignity without adding the First Amendment to the fire.
Comments are closed on this story.