Qur'an burning pastor deserving of free speech
Two police agencies in Florida recently announced that they've billed Pastor Terry Jones a total of $180,000 for police security related to his abandoned plan to burn copies of the Qur'an on Sept. 11. The reaction to this news has been alarmingly tepid at best and borderline sadistic at worst. A post on New York Magazine's Daily Intel blog, for instance, offered this take: "Seems kind of strange and unfair for Jones to be charged for that ... but who cares, the guy's a jerk."There's something very ugly about the fact that the police are treating this man as if he were not entitled to expect them to do their jobs simply because he had the gall to draw attention to himself and his unpopular views. The barely concealed message is as clear as it is chilling: Your right to free expression is protected, and if people try to harm you as a result, the police will do their jobs and keep you safe - that is, unless they don't like what you have to say, in which case you'll get a fat bill and some indignation for making them do their jobs.
What could be a more blatant affront to free expression and the role of the police force than to bill a man for receiving death threats and offending the sensitivities of the violently superstitious? The very point of limiting government of which the police force is a part with constitutional protections of individual rights is that the government should neither endorse a man's expression nor condemn it, just as it should neither endorse nor condemn any religious belief, sexual preference or anything else of that sort. The job of its agents is only to see that an individual's right to think, believe and speak for himself is protected. Who is more in need of this protection than a man whose views have been met with such widespread disdain?
What's even uglier about this situation is that almost no one seems to have any problem with the government's abandonment of its own basic duty; in fact, many people actually seem to revel in the fact that Jones is now receiving a sort of comeuppance. Why should this man have to pay some outrageous amount of money simply for having needed the police protection to
which he, like everyone else, is entitled? More generally, why should he be bullied in this way for an ultimately harmless bit of speech when it is the people he needed to be protected from that are the problem?
There's certainly no need to like Jones or his pseudo-message, nor to encourage a stunt like the Qur'an burning event. By all means, exercise your own right to free expression by criticizing the man's claims as hateful or backward or ignorant. But the moment others threaten violence against the man or worse still, against uninvolved people because they happen to also be Americans no decent or principled person can sit back and say that he deserves such treatment or that he is to blame if others indulge their violent impulses and attack Americans abroad. Nor can any principled person stand for this attempt to punish him for being both loud and unpopular by slapping him with an enormous bill. The fact that so many need to be told this most basic of things speaks poorly for the state of principled thought today.
There are plenty of issues which allow some room for reasonable people to disagree, but this is not one of them. This scandal, unlike most, presents a clear choice between that which is right and that which is wrong. On one hand, there is commitment to free expression as a valuable end in and of itself, and to the conviction that the only tolerable response to an ugly or unpleasant act of expression is another act of expression.
On the other hand, there is cowardly appeasement of those who cannot grasp or will not accept that others are entitled to disagree with them and, yes, even to "offend" them without being killed for it. The right to free expression is precious precisely because it keeps unpopular figures like Jones from being stifled or assaulted by such people, and because all but the slowest and most unprincipled of people will at some point find themselves on the unpopular side of an issue.
Government, in turn, is valuable precisely because it protects individual rights like freedom of expression. If you cannot recognize this blatant attack on free expression by the petulant and ill-tempered abroad and the shamefully lazy at home, and if you would allow the government to punish the very speech it is supposed to protect, then you are truly unworthy stewards of that hard-won right.
Eric Harrison is a Wiess College senior.
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