Monday, April 4, 2011

Koran Burning Pastor: Where Does First Amendment End?

Pastor Terry Jones, the Koran-burning Baptist preacher, presents a real challenge to America. Is our right to free speech absolute, or are there limits? Is he to blame for several dozen deaths from riots that his actions caused, or are Muslim rioters entirely to blame?

If you know that exercising your constitutional rights will cause the death of innocents, should you do it anyway? When are our constitutional rights more important than human life?

These are not easy questions, and anyone who thinks there are black-and-white answers has his head in the sand.

Let's get the man himself out of the way: pretty much everyone agrees that Pastor Terry Jones is a complete jerk. Even those who defend his right to free speech think he's an ass. He's also a creepy old man, fixated on the bathroom and bathing habits of his students. But in America we're all equal in the eyes of the law, so we'll put our dislike for the man himself aside.

The real challenges to freedom and democracy don't come from easy cases. When terrorists fly an airplane into a building there are no hard moral dilemmas. If all moral choices were that simple, we wouldn't need a Supreme Court. But consider what's really going on here:
  • Freedom of speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment. It includes the right to burn flags, Bibles and Qur'ans.
  • Terry Jones knew before he set a Qur'an on fire that people were likely to die. General Petraeus warned him. The State Department warned him. Even President Obama said it would jeopardize the American mission.
  • Terry Jones burned a Qur'an. The predicted riots materialized and over a dozen people are dead.
Dying in the cause of freedom is sometimes necessary. America was founded on the blood of patriots who were willing to die for freedom. But where does it end? Is it OK for a speaker to whip a crowd into a murderous frenzy during racially-charged protests? Should a labor leader talk about burning down a factory to a bunch of angry strikers?

Clearly there are limits on free speech. Has Terry Jones crossed that line? I honestly don't know. The right to free speech is so incredibly important ... but what if my son was one of the dead United Nations Peacekeeper soldiers?

I think the part everyone is forgetting is that Terry Jones wasn't some latter-day Nathan Hale choosing his own death in the fight for freedom. Jones is letting other people do the dying. If Jones really believes in free speech, if he really thinks the Qur'an should be put on trial, he should put his own life on the line. He should buy a ticket to Pakistan or Afghanistan and do his book-burning in a town square surrounded by Muslims. I imagine they'd be quite impressed by his convictions as they tied him to the stake.

In my final analysis, I think we have to separate the moral from the legal. What Terry Jones did was probably legal under the United States Constitution's First Amendment. But it was immoral. Terry Jones' actions were unconscionable and completely unnecessary. There were a thousand other ways he could have made his point without killing innocent people. In the end, he is nothing more than a self-centered egomaniac, lusting for his fifteen minutes of fame and willing to sacrifice young soldiers' lives to get it.

And I can't close without condemning the Muslim factions that actually responded to Terry Jones provocations. There is no excuse for their riots and the murders of innocent UN Peacekeepers. But that's the topic of a future blog.


  1. If a mugger threatens to shoot you unless you hand over your wallet, are you to blame if you don't comply and get shot?

    I would not have done what Terry Jones did, because I don't believe words have any magic power. I'd rather argue against them than burn them. But I cannot agree with the notion that he did anything immoral. The people who carried out actual acts of violence are the ones in the wrong here. Terry Jones may be a self-centered egomaniac, but we're the ones giving him his fifteen minutes by laying the blame at his feet.

  2. He has the right to do it, but what he did was wrong. Anyone with a conscience should know this without even having to contemplate it. It is very sad that he did it and very sad there was such a violent reaction, which unfortunately was very easily predicted.

  3. I'll tell you what I tweeted earlier today: absolutely no one should be arrested, let alone killed for the burning of anything that belongs to themselves, let alone if the burnt item is just a mythology book. Nuff said.
    regards, keep up the good work.

  4. Anon – it's not as simple as that. In theory you're right: we should be free to express ourselves and to have privacy. But in practice life isn't so simple.

    If I told you, "If you vote for the Democrat I'll kill your wife and children," and you KNEW I would carry through on the threat, would you vote for the Democrat? Surely it's your right in a democracy to vote for any candidate you like. But if you do, innocent people will die.

    How is that any different from what Terry Jones did? It's only different because it wasn't his own wife and children, it was other people's loved ones who got killed.

    We all have a duty to protect free speech. But we don't have a right to cause the deaths of 16 innocent people.

  5. I was taught that civil rights extend to the point at which the public peril begins. Freedom is not always license.

  6. You are so wrong. Your analogy is BS. To suggest that T. Jones caused these deaths is absurd.
    Regards Anthony

  7. Anthony – The analogy is not BS. If you think it is, show me why. You're right that Jones didn't cause the deaths, but I never claimed that. Rather, he took an action that he KNEW would result in others causing the deaths.

    If he hadn't burned the Qur'an, there would be sixteen people alive today. It doesn't matter who killed them. Jones could have prevented it and chose not to.

    Don't get me wrong, I realize if we're afraid to burn the Qur'an, the Muslim extremists would be winning. They'd be stifling our freedom through fear and intimidation. But is it your right to cause my death in the name of your freedom of speech? No. Risk your own life and I'll call you a hero. Risk an innocent bystander's life and you're scum.

  8. It's a sad day for America when this is even a issue. Mr. Jones is a idiot. However, His rights are guaranteed and Gen. Petreus and President Obama both took a oath to defend those rights. That either of them would think it right or appropiate to blame this on a American, in America who simply burned a book. The problem is the rioters not ours. If the rioters don't like it, that's just to bad.

  9. I respectfully disagree.

    Censorship by threat of violence is a stategy that currently works, in part becaus people fall over themselves to excuse the violent because they were "provoked".

    I found the granting of an all expenses paid UK state visit to the pope incredibly offensive. I didn't go on a killing spree.

  10. Thanks to all who commented ... see today's blog for more.

  11. I wish I had more time. Here are just a few thoughts. He did not cause the violence, he did not kill those people. His speech may indirectly been the cause but saying it's his fault is like blaming Rodney King for the L.A. riots.

    Yes our free speech is absolute, is it wise to use it in an absolute manner? Not always.

    What saddens me the most is that the people who claim to be progressive are the ones who are trying to create laws against free speech. They label it hate speech. I view that as a step back not progress.


Dear readers -- I am no longer blogging and after leaving these blogs open for two years have finally stopped accepting comments due to spammers. Thanks for your interest. If you'd like to write to me, click on the "Contact" link at the top. Thanks! -- CJ.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.