"Should" is Not a Good Reason to Restrain Free Speech
Much press and debate has been created due to Rev. Terry Jones announcement that he would burn a Quran, the holy book of Islam. Jones, of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, had planned to burn the book on the 9th anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. As of this writing, he has recanted his desire to ever burn a Quran and the deed went unfulfilled.
What it sparked has been a maelstrom of media coverage and debate. From the specter of European style Islamaphobia in the United States to the consequences of exercising the right to free speech, it has been a mountain made from a molehill.
In the days after the initial reports of a Christian Reverend’s plans to burn a Quran, I noted it only with passing interest. It seemed a trivial attempt to garner attention that I didn’t think it merited. However, as the attention was granted by a bored and insatiable media and the whole thing turned into a fiasco. Then came condemnations from quarters I did not expect. Liberal and like-mined folk also condemned the Reverend’s anticipated actions.
Arguments usually centered around two main points. One was that the book burning would put American troops in harms way. The second was that while Jones certainly had the right to burn the book, he shouldn’t do it.
First, the troop argument really gets down to responsibility and consequences of free speech. A person is not free to yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater. The reason is that the person is inciting panic which can directly cause harm. But in the case of troop harm, the direct link is not there. A burning of a privately owned book on privately owned property will not directly lead to harm unless Jones manages to set himself on fire.
The argument that troops will be more or equally exposed to elevated harm as being sent to a war zone, occupying a foreign land, consequences from drone attacks, home to home searches, America’s foreign policies, et cetera, is weak. It holds no water. We were told that Al-Qaeda hated and attacked us because they hated our freedom. While that is very simplistic and ignores other causes, it remains true. But no one has ever suggested that we discontinue being free in order to remain safe (and yes, I am ignoring the Patriot Act in order to stay focused).
Freedom comes with a certain amount of risk. That people would argue that American troops, who we hero worship for fighting and dying to protect our freedoms, should now be protected by the citizen sacrifice of freedom, is completely backwards from how I understand American freedoms and the idealized role of American soldiers. Will barbecuing be something we should no longer do on Memorial Day because it may offend some radical in a far off land that may cause harm to some American soldier at some time in the future?
This leads to the next argument of “should”. Should people do things simply because they can? It is very disrespectful, I hear, to moderate Muslims both inside and outside of the United States. The Dove World Outreach Center will not make a lot of friends around the world with this act. It is about responsible use of free speech, I am told.
This seems to conflate two issues. Jones has every right to burn the book, but people say he shouldn’t. Well, if Jones intends to make friends and give warm and fuzzy feelings to Muslims, then no, he should not. But Jones intent is not that. He intends to burn the book for other reasons. And while we can disagree with those reasons, they really do not matter in the context of free speech. He has the right to do it and people have the right to bitch and moan. But why do they bother to bitch and moan about other people exercising their rights within the law?
What I find disconcerting is that much of the discussion is about the book burning itself, which to me is meaningless. The reasons for it matter more. But regardless of those reasons, the whole affair, as far as Jones is concerned, is one giant shoulder shrug.
PZ Myers destroyed a blessed communion wafer, pages from the Quran, and pages from The God Delusion. Only Catholics were up in arms about the act, most of them unaware of the message PZ was sending. It was in response to a fellow who tried to leave a church with a wafer in his mouth. Other church members saw that as a direct attack on their God and physically restrained the young man from leaving. Their silly belief that a cracker turned into the body of their god was more important to them than the rights of the young man.
PZ’s message was that their beliefs meant nothing to him and that it is just a cracker. Essentially, he was saying that there are no sacred cows. The Quran is just a book and it means less than nothing to Jones. And for him, he felt that he was making just as an important point as PZ felt he was making. So, are freedoms conditional on how much we agree with the message delivered by their use? I think it does not matter. Popular speech does not need protection. Freedom of speech is important because it protects unpopular speech. It is not up to anyone to decide if unpopular speech is good or bad. It doesn’t matter and we would not even know how to tell the difference in many cases. Only history can shed light on whether our biases were coloring our judgments.
President Obama said in a press conference that the idea that "we would burn the sacred texts of someone else's religion is contrary to what this country stands for.” President Obama is pandering to Americans who think that freedom of religion means that respect for religion must trump freedom of speech. It does not. Freedom of religion means that you are free to practice whatever religion you want. Burning a Quran does not prevent a single person from practicing Islam. No one needs to respect or show deference to your religion in order for you to practice it. And if your religion requires that, then it is infringing on the rights of others.
Just think if that were the case, though. Atheists “should” just sit down and shut up. They should no longer criticize Christianity because in doing so, they are engaging in activities that are “contrary to what America stands for”. Does anyone buy that?