Student Blog: Should the right to burn the Koran be protected under the First Amendment?

By Patricia Pratt

Earlier this year, Pastor Terry Jones threatened to burn the Koran in memory of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.  While free speech is constitutionally protected, even when it is considered offensive, outrageous and unpopular, there has to be a limit on what can and cannot be uttered.  You don’t need the courts to protect speech that everyone agrees with.  You need the First Amendment to protect speech that people regard as intolerable, because that is when the majority can and will wield its power to censor or suppress.  Has the current administration set a precedent for self-censorship based on the anticipated mood swings of mobs and fanatics or did it protect when the speech fostered such hatred and discrimination, promoting violence and killing?

Unique among courts of the world, the Supreme Court has extended broad protection in the area of hate speech.  The justices have consistently held that statutes punishing speech or conduct solely because they are unseemly or offensive are unconstitutionally overly broad. Still, many Americans argue to limit hateful expression. To support this position they invoke the fighting words doctrine articulated by Justice Frank Murphy’s unanimous opinion in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942). Murphy defined fighting words as those that neither contributed to the expression of ideas nor possessed any social value in the search for truth and that incited an immediate, violent response.   With the Chaplinsky exception in mind, the Court has generally given broad scope to speech that some would classify as hateful.

The concern in this instance is that even the mention of burning the Koran led to violence.  In Western Afghanistan, hundreds surrounded the NATO base and soldiers had to defend the base.  At least one civilian was killed and three were wounded.  In Northern Afghanistan angry Muslims charged another NATO building and at least five protesters were wounded and three police officers were hurt.  Thousands of protesters in Indonesia held signs promising Jihad if the Korans are burnt.  In Pakistan, hundreds of angry Muslims burned American flags, called for the hanging of Terry Jones, and shouted “death to America.”  The promise of burning books has led to not only threats of Jihad but actual killings, fires, and hatred.

General David Petraeus, the leading US and NATO commander in Afghanistan said threats to burn copies of the Koran could endanger troops in Afghanistan and Americans worldwide.  General Petraeus stated that, “Images of the burning of a Qur’an would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan, and around the world, to inflame public opinion and incite violence.  I am very concerned by the potential repercussions. Even the rumor that it might take place has sparked demonstrations such as the one that took place in Kabul. Were the actual burning to take place, the safety of our soldiers and civilians would be put in jeopardy….”

Where does free speech end and hate speech begin?

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