Tim Rutten: Florida pastor Terry Jones and the far reach of free speech

In this digital age, speech has been globalized just as surely as commerce.

That’s one of the lessons to be taken from the troubling sequence of events in which a tiny Florida church’s distasteful publicity stunt of burning a Koran triggered five days of protest and mob violence across Afghanistan. Through Tuesday, more than 20 people had been killed, and the hand of our Taliban antagonists has been strengthened.

Terry Jones, you may recall, is the anti-Islam pastor of a Gainesville fundamentalist church with a congregation of about 30, who gained international notoriety and hours of press attention last fall by threatening to burn a Koran on the Sept. 11 anniversary. After appeals from, among others, President Obama and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Jones relented. Last month, however, he decided to hold a mock “trial” of Islam’s holy book that ended with its burning.

This time, the American news media simply ignored Jones’ crude cabaret of bigotry, but a video made its way onto the Internet. Then, for reasons that remain unclear, Afghan President Hamid Karzai refused to let the provocation pass. On March 24, he issued a news release demanding that the United States “bring to justice the perpetrators of this crime.” On Thursday, he gave a speech condemning the burning and demanding Jones’ arrest. The next day, deadly rioting erupted after Friday prayers in Afghan mosques. Sunday, in a meeting with Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Karzai demanded that Congress pass a resolution condemning Jones.


For their part, both Obama and Petraeus unequivocally condemned Jones’ desecration of the Koran, though the president also called the killings that followed “an affront to human decency and dignity.”

Others have raised the question of whether our conception of constitutionally protected speech needs to adjust itself to an age in which words spoken in Gainesville can have deadly impact in Mazar-i-Sharif. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), for example, wants Congress to explore ways to limit now-protected expressions, such as Jones’. “Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war,” he said Sunday. “During World War II, we had limits on what you could do if it inspired the enemy.” Graham, who wields considerable influence as a former military lawyer, said he wants to do “anything we can to push back here in America against acts like this that put our troops at risk.”

Obviously, there have been necessary wartime restraints on speech, but they’ve always involved restrictions on transmitting information, such as troop movements. What Jones did is luridly offensive, but it amounts to an expression of opinion. Blasphemy is protected by the 1st Amendment, and any attempt to make it otherwise -- however well-intended -- is a prescription for disaster.

Still others have wondered whether it might be possible to apply the “fighting words” exception to the 1st Amendment to cases such as Jones’ stunt, which seemed almost certain to provoke a deadly response half a world away. In its 1942 ruling in Chaplinsky vs. New Hampshire, the U.S. Supreme Court defined that exception in a way that could be construed to cover Jones’ desecration of the Koran:


“There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include ? ‘fighting words’ -- those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.”

The problem is that, ever since Chaplinsky, the court has narrowed the scope of the fighting words exception, holding that it can’t be used, for example, to restrain flag burners. Moreover, any attempt to extend the audience whose sensibilities must be weighed beyond our borders attenuates the exception beyond reason. What, in this instance, of the hundreds of millions of Muslims who were not incited to violence by Jones’ provocation?

The issues raised by these events are not a challenge to our conception of free speech, but to our collective conscience. The question that ought to be asked isn’t whether the wretched Jones’ repellant theater is protected speech, but why the United States continues to produce as many people who speak and act as he does about Muslims?