Burning Qurans, Flags, Bibles? The First Amendment Rules

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All the sturm und drang of the past few days over a Florida pastor's plans to burn a pile of Qurans on September 11 may have paid off.

The AP is now reporting that Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville's Dove World Outreach Center has canceled the holy book bonfire, claiming that he's reached a deal with the folks building the Muslim religious center two blocks away from Ground Zero. He says they've promised to move it farther away from the site of the World Trade Center attacks.

However, other news outlets are reporting that the people behind the so-called Ground Zero Mosque in New York are denying that this oddball deal has been struck.

If any of this backpedaling on the mosque-building or the book-burn turns out to be true, it's an unsettling day for bedrock principles of American democracy such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion, as enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

For the past week, the local news has wrung its hands over the pending Quran-roast by this Florida wacko. There's been legitimate concern about a rise in bias incidents against Muslims. And the Arizona Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-AZ) has urged media professionals to be "responsible" when reporting on the story.

Such anxiety has been widespread, with President Barack Obama and his top guy in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, urging the pastor not to go forward, for fear that this constitutionally protected act would inflame Muslims around the globe and, perhaps, provoke attacks against U.S. troops, citizens and embassies.

The rub, of course, is that we are free country governed by a Constitution that is the envy of the world. And the U.S. Supreme Court has long held that symbolic speech enjoys the same protections as other kinds of speech.

This guarantee of a right to symbolic expression has applied to students wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, African-American sit-ins at all white lunch counters during the Civil Rights Era, and those barbecuing the American flag. It would, presumably, also apply to the burning of Qurans, the Christian Bible, and just about any other religious text you can think of.

There was a report on CNN today that FBI agents had visited the pastor to discuss his plans with him. Talk about gross intimidation. If Jones had been threatening others, like the President himself, he might deserve such a visit. Otherwise, the FBI's call on the pastor can be seen as having a chilling effect.

Just because someone's religious or political expression might tick others off, this is not a valid argument for censorship.

Indeed, late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, writing for the majority in Texas vs. Johnson, found that a defendant's burning of the American flag constituted "expressive conduct," and that arguments that it might inflame others were moot.

"The State's position," he wrote, "therefore, amounts to a claim that an audience that takes serious offense at particular expression is necessarily likely to disturb the peace and that the expression may be prohibited on this basis. Our precedents do not countenance such a presumption.

"On the contrary, they recognize that a principal 'function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may, indeed, best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.'"

You may recall the neo-Nazi rally at the Arizona State Capitol in November of last year. The 60 or so neo-Nazis in attendance wore Nazi regalia, bore flags emblazoned with swastikas. They tore up Mexican flags, stomped and spat on them, and hurled racial epithets. Anarchists met them in counter-protest. Both sides were armed. There could have been violence. Fortunately, there wasn't.

That, my friends, is America. In fact, there is nothing more "American" than Nazis demonstrating at a state Capitol under the protection of law enforcement. The Phoenix PD did nothing to dissuade the Hitler-lovers. Instead, they facilitated them. And rightly so.

Similarly, there is nothing more "American," in its weird way, than some crazy Bible-thumper pouring gas on a stack of Qurans and lighting a match. Ditto an atheist burning a pile of Bibles. Or some anti-war dude firing up the American flag. Or a nativist who flambés the Mexican tricolor.

Sure, there are some limits. The Ku Klux Klan can burn a cross in a vacant field on private land. It cannot do so outside someone's house as a means of intimidation.

But how can the entire Muslim community be threatened by a lone crackpot grilling its holy book on the property of a tiny church in backwater Florida? Offended, Muslims and others may be, but they are not threatened.

As far as the mosque two blocks from Ground Zero, I couldn't care less if it was right next door to that sacred spot. What better way to celebrate the very freedom and diversity that the 9/11 hijackers were so intent on obliterating?

To the argument that Jones' act might have endangered our soldiers in Afghanistan, I agree that's something to worry about, to anticipate and prepare for.

But that's no reason to back down on American principles, any more than it would have been for that Danish newspaper to have balked at running those "blasphemous" cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad a while back.

I want to live in a free society, where I can give the raspberries to Muhammad, Jesus Christ, L. Ron Hubbard, the Buddha, Hello Kitty, and any number of other icons, religious and otherwise.

As for the Quran, it's just a book, like the Bible or Sarah Palin's memoir. Its being reduced to ashes by some Christian nut should cause us no more angst than throwing Going Rogue onto a blazing hearth. 

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