"Should" is Not a Good Reason to Restrain Free Speech

"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?

Views: 25

Comment by willailla on September 12, 2010 at 1:09pm
Ideals are nice . . . until you have to stand up for them. I'm listening to conservative Dennis Prager on the radio right now. He's ranting on and on about how wrong it would be to burn the Koran because of the danger it puts our troops in, etc.

Not everyone believes in ideals. Right wingers [50% of the voters] who claim to love the Constitution hate it when it interferes with their agendas. Democrats [50% of the voters] waffle.

Baby Bush instituted 'Free Speech Zones' to keep protesters from receiving media attention--not that the government-controlled media would have given them real attention anyway. Baby Bush also introduced two Patriot Acts that gutted free speech and other Constitutional rights. Anyone could be arrested, tortured and denied legal counsel--actually they always could have been, but now it was legal. Torture became 'enhanced interrogation' in an Orwellian perversion of free speech. And there was no swell of outrage at this desecration of our ideals.

This is the real America.

Freedom is a nice sentiment, but an ideal you'll only find in books. Sure, You're allowed to say anything you want as long as what you say doesn't matter. Mount a significant protest against government corruption and you will be mocked or silenced; gather in numbers and the police or military will attack you and beat you senseless.

Should there be freedom of speech? Where will you find patriots willing to stand up for it?
Comment by Reggie on September 12, 2010 at 1:27pm
Here's what I didn't understand about that one: aren't the troops already in harm's way?

It is logically inconsistent, n'est pas?


Should there be freedom of speech? Where will you find patriots willing to stand up for it?

You find them in abundance when the speech is popular and the detractors are in the minority. And while I recognize the distinction between free speech ideals and free speech in practice, it is something still worth striving to protect and/or implement in new areas.

No one is immune from being mocked for their speech. And I am not saying Jones should not be mocked or criticized for the particulars of his actions or words. That, again, is part of the risk involved with freedoms. I just don't understand why people stress that other people have rights they should not exercise. If they have the right and it is legal and causes no direct harm, then everyone should not care.
Comment by Gaytor on September 12, 2010 at 2:27pm
Has there ever been an atheist or scientist book burning that wasn't in jest?

There is no guarantee that the government will like your speech, only that they will allow it. If Obama said nothing, then you wouldn't have a concern, correct? No one imposed an injunction against the act. I would certainly agree that Obama has too many opinions. Why is the mosque a concern of his in his role? So if you were his aide, where would you try to draw the line for him on subjects? If he's asked by a reporter, would it be ok for him to largely say, "I'm not going to comment on that." He's ostensibly our leader. Should he only be leading on matters that directly affect the Executive Office?

Jones thought that he wanted free speech. The reality is that when he was given a world stage, his foolishness had a spotlight on it so bright that even he saw it. He couldn't handle the pressure and took the first out he got. His free speech wasn't infringed, even by Obama. But Obama was no Thomas Paine in the matter.
Comment by Jon Heim on September 12, 2010 at 2:30pm
the only reason I was against him burning the book was because it only proves how ignorant and intolerant people can be.

other then that, the guy had every right too act as childish as he wanted.
Comment by Jon Heim on September 12, 2010 at 2:31pm
reminds me of how some people think atheists are un-American. pisses me off because we stand up for our rights. what can be more American then that?
Comment by willailla on September 12, 2010 at 3:40pm
I'll bet 99.9% of Americans have never read the Constitution, let alone studied it. Not that it matters. Presidents and Congress ignore it on a daily basis. War can only be declared by Congress. Should we chuckle now? Yes, let us chuckle. Since WWII presidents have ignored the Constitution and declared wars--without Congress.

The amendments to the Constitution. Worth as little as the paper they're written on. This country was built on slavery. Today, unless you are a member of the wealthy elite, you are a wage slave who is free to vote and is naive enough to think his or her vote matters. Beware of freedom. It comes with the chains of illusion.

I'm ranting; I'm pissed; I'm postal. I'm free to say all these things because they are inconsequential.
Comment by Reggie on September 13, 2010 at 1:29am
@ Adriana - but burning books, any books, is a childish activity, indicative only of intolerance, lack of sophistication and deep thought

I agree with that, in this particular case, but since he has the right to do that, I don't care anymore about it than the daily, childish activities of almost every adult in this country.

But someone else might have a very non-childish and important point to make by burning a book. The point is that the point of it does not matter. Pretend it is a log instead of a book. Why is the book sacred and not the log?

I personally would give up my freedom of speech if I thought my words or actions will incite hate or contribute to someone dying or being at greater risk for dying. Ideals are not more important than human life in my humble opinion.

Personally, I would not give up another person's freedom of speech for any reason. My own? Sure. But another's? No way. I will fight for it. And sometimes, ideals are more important than human lives. And when people threaten free speech with the chance of danger, we have to evaluate the balance. Sure, we may find some radical's journal detailing how some ideal made him kill, but can we quantify how many lives are saved by the freedom of everyone to speak out without fear of repression?

@ Gaytor - If Obama said nothing, then you wouldn't have a concern, correct?

No. My ire towards Obama is that he felt the need to publicize his disagreement about something a private citizen has the right to do, then tries to blame the citizen for future injury or death of American soldiers. That is bullshit and I expect better from an educated man who taught Constitutional Law. His inability to be a man of principle is quickly turning me against him.

Obama is not my leader in what I consider right or wrong. I am. Of course Jones felt heat from the media glare. He probably did not expect it. But, think of the glare any of us would have thrust on us if our views expressed at T|A were given a national spotlight. Do you think it would be easy? Do you think you are no longer entitled to those views because of the heat?

I never said that Obama infringed on anyone's free speech. But the implication is clear that the President of the Free World disapproves of certain free speech. That is not a good thing when that guy goes out of his way to express his disapproval.

And for the record, Thomas Paine was surely no Thomas Paine, if you no what I mean.
Comment by Reggie on September 13, 2010 at 1:32am
Forgive the spelling errors. Gah!

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