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The Worst Kind of Free Speech

— Filed under: Breaking News, Politics & Government, People & Culture
Westboro Baptist Church at the United Nations ...

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The latest media reports indicate that pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Florida has postponed, but not cancelled, his congregation's planned Qur'an-burning on the anniversary of September 11th, after a phone call from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and condemnation from leaders worldwide.

Unfortunately, Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church (of "God Hates Fags" infamy) have vowed to carry out the burning if Dove World doesn't do it.

In the meantime, Dove World has had its website taken down by their hosting providers, Interpol has issued a global alert, and some clever folks have created a parody ad mocking Jones and Phelps.

President Obama on Thursday urged Jones to listen to "those better angels", saying that the burning was contrary to American values. But is it really? Even a cursory reading of message boards around the web yields a plethora of angry and hate-filled comments by those supporting the Qur'an-burning. There seem to be an awful lot of Americans who feel that burning the Qur'an is revenge for acts of violence carried out by Muslim extremists — that a slap in the face of all Muslims worldwide is a fitting atonement for the acts of a few nutjobs.

Voltaire, portrait after Nicholas de Largilliere
Voltaire: Defender of freedom of speech

Despite the pleas (and in some cases the demands) of world leaders that the American government stop Jones, they're wasting their breath. The authorities won't stop Jones because his actions are protected by the First Amendment, the freedom of speech. In the famous (and incorrectly attributed) words of the French philosopher Voltaire:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

This is the basic tenet of American, and indeed Western civilization. It represents everything we stand for, fight for, and strive for. We might find a particular piece of speech detestable, but the right to say it must be defended or the entire system falls apart. Freedom of speech is seen as one of the foundations underpinning an open and fair society, and selective application would undermine the freedom for everyone. It has to be freedom for all speech, no matter how distasteful.

That said, can you think of a more offensive act of free speech than burning another religion's holy book? Go on, I dare you. You won't find one. This is the ultimate and most extreme example of freedom of speech the world has ever seen. And in the end this becomes not so much about free speech as it is about human decency. Yes, we are free to say anything we want. But should we?

brendathompsen1977's picture

Freedom of speech baby. you

Freedom of speech baby. you might not like it, but you can't stop it either. maybe they should have thout of that before they flew those planes into the wtc

Anonymous's picture

"Freedom of speech baby. you

"Freedom of speech baby. you might not like it, but you can't stop it either. maybe they should have thout of that before they flew those planes into the wtc"

Who is "they" Brenda?  The people that flew planes into the WTC do not represent all Muslims anymore than you represent all white women...!

brendathompsen1977's picture

well "they" should stop their

well "they" should stop their fellow Muslims from doing that sort of thing then. they protest a lot when we burn the koran, but where are their protests when there is an attack by Muslim extremists?

Anonymous's picture

free speech

can you think of a more offensive act of free speech than burning another religion's holy book? Go on, I dare you. You won't find one. This is the ultimate and most extreme example of freedom of speech the world has ever seen. And in the end this becomes not so much about free speech as it is about human decency. Yes, we are free to say anything we want. But should we?

Well I can think of a worse example just off the top of my head. How about those people who deny that the Holocaust ever happened. How can you say that that the burning of a book is worse than persons trying to prove that something like the slaughter of 6 million people did not happen. However I in no way support or condone the koran burnings but if you start saying its illegal to say or do something in regards to free speech where does it end?

Bernard's picture

Not the same

You make a good point, but I'm afraid I can't agree that denial of the Holocaust is worse. Burning the Quran is designed to offend, and to inflame hatred. Denial of the Holocaust is offensive, but not necessarily intentionally so.

NoWhat2's picture

Woe is me. The argument has

Woe is me. The argument has been laid out clearly in this article, anyone who is not a bigot would have already seen that this circumstance is an abuse of freedom of speech,even before this article was written. Yet the first comment it renders comes from the bigot spoof of Austin Powers...yeh baby!

We can't help what race or religion we are born into. People hack at Islam saying that it is not forward moving, and on some points I have to agree. But how are people condemning the whole of Islam for the act of a few crazies any different? Sounds like they've gone back to the days of burning all witches at the stake. You do know they weren't really witches, right?

Bernard's picture

Eid toned down by US Muslims

Muslims across America decided this Eid ul-Fitr to tone down this year's celebrations, which fall on September 11th. Why? Out of respect for those who perished, and to remember the victims, and to not offend those who are still mourning. Did they have to? No, of course not. They would have been well within their first amendment rights to party down as loudly as they desired. But they chose not to, because of respect, kindness, and courtesy. The rest of America could learn something from this. Link below.

http://abcnews.go.com/US/muslims-tone-eid-celebrations/story?id=11607822

The following story also gives me hope that the real America is not lost. Two Muslims trek across the USA and are renewed by what they witness.

http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/09/10/ramadan.roadtrip.folo/

Anonymous's picture

@Brenda: You miss the point

@Brenda: You miss the point entirely.  As a Christian, I am not responsible for stopping wrong actions of fellow Christians in Australia.  I simply cannot afford to fly there and persuade them.  And even if I could reach them by phone, there's no indication that they would stop their wrong actions.   And I come from one of the richest countries in the world.  How the heck to do you expect a Muslim in North Africa, for example to stop Saudi Arabian terrorists who happen to be Muslims?  And, as another poster pointed out, Muslims in America seriously toned down their celebration of their holy day this year to be sensitive to 9/11 anniversary.  And you support burning their holy book?  What would Jesus say about your behavior?  Didn't he say something about "judge not lest ye be judged" and "turn the other cheek" and "love thy neighbor"?

@Anonymous:  You said: "How can you say that that the burning of a book is worse than persons trying to prove that something like the slaughter of 6 million people did not happen."   6 million people didn't die in the holocaust!!  11 million people died!!  Why do we only pay attention to the Jews that died!?!  Nearly 1/2 the people that died were NOT Jews. 

anonymous's picture

Two killed in Afghanistan in crowd protesting burning

I don't see "freedom of speech" as the basic tenet of Western civilization.   I am not saying that I know what the basic tenet is.  Right now, Western civilization doesn't feel very noble to me.   Obviously, the basic tenet isn't "Love."   Is it "Liberty?"  Supposedly, personal liberty is qualified by our not hurting others.  And the judicial system is set up to set these boundaries.   To me, this Mr. Terry Jones is a bit like a person who believes that he has a right to publish child pornography.   

MrShaw's picture

The Daily Mail - fanning the flames of hatred

I found this article about a gent from Oz who decided to smoke both Christian and Muslim holy books, post the video on Youtube and is now in hiding. Idiot.  The funniest thing is that the article denies that he smoked marijuana, but not that he smoked the books.  It also denies he does drugs, which is quite plausible, but perhaps should be on heavy medication before thinking about making such video's.

MrShaw's picture

6 idiots from my neck of the woods are arrested.

6 men from Gateshead, Tyne and Wear have been arrested for burning the Koran on Spetember 11th, and filming themselves.  I am ashamed, more so of the fact that anybody would actually burn a book than the 'Freedom of Speech' angle.  I don't really regard this as speech, more as wanton vandalism intended to incite hatred.  The only books I would consider fair fire fodder would be anything by H.B. Potter, "A Journey" by A.C.L. Blair and "I Don't mean to be rude, but" by S.P. Cowell.

Winston Smith's picture

Not protected?

Is it illegal to burn the Quran in the UK?  Is it not protected as free speech?