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Arrest of Koran-Burning Pastor Terry Jones Brings Freedom of Speech Into Focus

Posted on April 26 2011 9:00 am
Walter Hudson is a political commentator and co-founder of Minnesota's North Star Tea Party Patriots, a statewide educational organization. He runs a blog entitled Fightin Words. He also contributes to True North, a hub of Minnesotan conservative commentary. Follow his work via Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
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The freedom of speech is perhaps the most popular among those cited in the Bill of Rights. The ability to express yourself without fear of fine or incarceration is essential to the maintenance of a free society. Jihad Watch director Robert Spencer, a prolific author on the topic of Islam, has an important article at Human Events suggesting that free speech may be endangered.

On Good Friday in Dearborn, Mich., the notorious Koran-burning pastor Terry Jones was jailed and fined for the crime of refusing to pay a so-called “peace bond” to cover the costs of extra police protection for Jones’ planned demonstration outside the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn.  Judge Mark Somers also ordered Jones to stay away from the massive Dearborn mosque for three years.

Spencer points out that Jones was not the threat to public order that Dearborn authorities treated him as. Rather, the threat to public order was the prospect of violent reaction from Muslims.

… if Jones and his fellow protesters were not being violent themselves, wouldn’t the responsibility for any disturbance be upon those who decided to react to whatever Jones was doing by causing the disturbance?(…)

… To restrict Jones’ right to protest in front of a mosque is to send the signal that violent intimidation works, and that those who killed people in Afghanistan because of Jones’ Koran-burning have achieved their ultimate goal: to make Islam immune from criticism because every potential critic will be afraid to speak out.

Spencer is right. Jones is not responsible for the reactions of others. It is the violence, and not the speech, which ought to be subject to police action. Instead, the Detroit Free Press reports that authorities have those priorities reversed.

Dearborn officials and Wayne County prosecutors have said that if Jones protested at the mosque, it might lead to possible violence because of Jones’ past actions.

Kowtowing to Islam in this manner is unacceptable, and Spencer rightly condemns it. However, it is equally important that we not shoot ourselves in the foot by elevating freedom of speech above countervailing rights. Either imbalance is equally threatening to liberty.

For example, consider the deplorable Westboro Baptists, notorious for their vile protests at military funerals. Families should be able to bury their loved ones in peace, and not be subject to protest while conducting their solemn business. So noted Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, the lone dissenter in a recent decision which favored the Westboro Baptists over the mourning survivors of fallen soldiers.

Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.

Unless they own the venue, no one has any business at a funeral to which they were not invited. The same principle applies to an increasingly popular tactic among labor unions, protesting outside the homes of people they don’t like. Your neighbor’s right to speak does not trump your right to live in peace, free of their blathering idiocy. You do not deprive another of their freedom by ejecting them from your venue, be it your home, your business, or – through the proper enforcement of ordinance and statute – any public area where their activity inhibits lawful business.

Time, place, and manner restrictions are crafted upon the precarious junction between freedom of speech and freedom of association. This is the principle which informs noise ordinances and statues regarding disturbance of the peace. Enforcement of community standards is entirely consistent with, and indeed demanded by, genuine libertarianism. The freedom of speech is not a license to coerce association by shouting people down out of turn.

On this point, the Michigan authorities might have made a legitimate case. While Jones is entitled to criticize Islam, he is not entitled to do so in whatever time, place, and manner he pleases. Property rights and association rights are as legitimate as speech rights.

Instead, Dearborn officials and Wayne County prosecutors clearly singled out the content of Jones’ speech.  This is evident, as Spencer points out, in their requirement for a “peace bond,” subjectively imposed in response to what Jones planned to say and who he planned to say it about. Proper time, place, and manner restrictions are blind to such considerations.

It’s important to get this argument right. It is wrong to hold Jones responsible for the actions of others. However, it’s an overreach to say he’s entitled to protest wherever, whenever, and however he wants. In light of the Left’s increasing willingness to impose upon others under the guise of “free speech,” it’s a point worth clarifying.

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