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Published: Wednesday, 5/4/2011

Free-speech foolishness

Terry Jones got the confrontation he sought -- and more attention than he deserved -- when he spewed his anti-Islamic bigotry last week in the largely Arab-American city of Dearborn, Mich.

No one got hurt during a scuffle between the hate-preaching pastor and counterprotesters, and his circus slunk away from the Detroit suburb without further incident. But the official overreaction to Mr. Jones' rally did more damage to this nation's free-speech guarantees -- and got him more exposure -- than his ravings ever could.

As expected, Mr. Jones' demonstration at a designated "free-speech zone" outside Dearborn City Hall offered nonsensical suggestions about the community being governed by Islamic sharia law. In March, the thuggish pastor had orchestrated a burning in Florida of the Qur'an, the Islamic holy book, generating deadly protests in Afghanistan.

But the rally also offered a new theme: Mr. Jones as First Amendment martyr. Dearborn officials denied his initial request to speak a week earlier on public property near the Islamic Center of America, the nation's largest mosque.

County prosecutors persuaded a jury to declare Mr. Jones a threat to public peace and a judge to order him to post a $1, three-year "peace bond" under an obsolete 19th-century state law. He was jailed for a few hours until he complied.

None of this was necessary. To the contrary, it was counterproductive in that it gave Mr. Jones more of the notoriety he craves. Without it, his original protest likely would have been an even bigger flop than last week's nonevent.

Now, though, Mr. Jones gets to wrap himself in the Constitution. Some credulous souls may even buy into his absurd assertion that what he has to say about "radical Islam" and the natural superiority of Christianity is so urgent and so dangerous that the government wants to shut him up. They might now listen more attentively to his babbling.

The death this week of Osama bin Laden reminded the world of the sometimes lethal consequences of clothing hatred in the garb of religion. To a large extent, Mr. Jones is guilty of the religious intolerance he condemns.

He lacks the resources to wreak the damage bin Laden did. But the official response to his Dearborn antics earned him a degree of credibility he would not have gotten had he simply been ignored.

One of the major differences between America and authoritarian states is that we value the free, robust, and peaceful exchange of ideas -- however dumb or distasteful some of them are -- instead of defining that exchange as a threat that must be suppressed. We understand that the best antidote to offensive speech is more speech, not censorship.

After last month's follies in Dearborn, that distinction is no longer quite so clear. To that extent, Pastor Jones and his caravan of hate emerged victorious.



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