Q&A: U.S. "tolerance for intolerance" protects Koran-burner

MIAMI Thu Sep 9, 2010 2:38pm EDT

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MIAMI (Reuters) - As international outrage, anger and protests grow over the planned burning of copies of the Koran by an obscure Florida pastor, an uncomprehending world may be asking why U.S. authorities do not halt the damaging event.

The answer lies in the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, one of the sacrosanct tenets of America's Bill of Rights, that jealously guards freedom of expression, assembly and religion. It is considered a bedrock of personal freedoms enshrined in the United States' historic democracy.

Authorities in the north Florida university city of Gainesville, where Pastor Terry Jones of the tiny Dove World Outreach Center church plans to torch copies of the Koran on Saturday to signal his opposition to "radical Islam," say they cannot prevent the bewhiskered preacher from going ahead.

They cite his First Amendment rights, even though Jones may violate local fire safety regulations if he goes ahead with the burning on his property after being denied a city burn permit.

With condemnation raining down on his gray-haired head from the pope to President Barack Obama, U.S. commanders warning of Americans' lives at risk from violent retaliation in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere and some global Muslim leaders saying world peace is under threat, many will be wondering how the provocative event can be allowed to go ahead.

Following are some questions and answers about the issue.

WHY DON'T U.S. AUTHORITIES SIMPLY BAN IT?

The U.S. Constitution's First Amendment reads:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

In the United States, this guarantees the inalienable right of the individual to express himself or herself, however abhorrent the views might be and whatever the feared reaction.

"In a free society, at least in this free society, people have a right to be intolerant morons and there's no question that this pastor is all of that," said Bob Corn-Revere, a First Amendment lawyer and partner at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP.

"He is an ignorant, intolerant moron, but he's protected by the law," Corn-Revere told Reuters.

Experts say that whereas in other countries laws might be clearer or more forceful in allowing authorities to prohibit such provocative events as the Koran-burning, in the United States, this wide "tolerance for intolerance" is an intrinsic part of freedom-loving American democracy.

They point to the fact that burning the American flag -- a favorite recourse by Muslims protesting against perceived U.S. insults to Islam -- is also a form of domestic protest protected by the constitution in the United States.

"There are only very few circumstances where speech can be banned, like (falsely declaring) fire in a theater, or information about movement of troops or ships in times of war," said Gregg Thomas, partner at Tampa-based Thomas & LoCicero.

Despite what seems a real risk of anti-American violence and even deaths from the pastor's action -- the FBI has warned "with high confidence" such attacks are likely -- defenders of First Amendment rights say the value of this protection outweighs the credible threats posed by the Koran-burning.

"That's the slippery slope about the First Amendment, if you permit common sense to prevail over principle, then you start giving up the principle," Thomas said.

"The values that are embedded in the First Amendment long-term -- while maybe not in this immediate circumstance -- are so valuable to our democracy that you just can't change the rules when it gets tough," he added.

COULD THE PASTOR BE CHARGED WITH ANY CRIME?

In simply announcing the "International Burn a Koran Day" on his property, Jones has not so far committed any crime.

The fundamentalist Christian pastor applied for, and was denied by the Gainesville city fire department, a permit to carry out an "open air burn" of the Koran texts. But he says he is going ahead anyway.

Gainesville authorities say his violation of the burn ordinances would earn him a civil citation which would be issued to him by police. But this would not necessarily mean him being arrested or going to jail, likely just a fine.

Laws do exist in the United States and Florida that prohibit the "incitement of violence," but lawyers said it might be difficult to apply that to Jones' mere announcement that he was going to burn the Koran texts.

"The only way that speech can be stopped is if it has the immediate application to incite violence," Thomas said, adding that the angry Muslim protests already seen in Afghanistan and Indonesia may prove to be too "distant" in this case.

Corn-Revere said moving against Jones just because he had announced the Koran-burning could be legally risky.

"If you restrict someone's burn permit, not because the fire is a threat to the safety of people around, but because you don't like what is being burned, then that becomes a First Amendment issue," he added.

Even Obama, who has slammed the planned burning as a "recruitment bonanza" for al Qaeda, admits that there is little that can legally be done to stop the event.

"My understanding is that he can be cited for public burning, but that's the extent of the laws that can be applied," the president told ABC's "Good Morning America."

Lawyers say that even if a death does result from riots or retaliation triggered by the Koran-burning, it could still be a "stretch" to legally pin criminal blame on Jones for this.

"We would of course be very, very moved and very sad by that, but we would not feel responsible ... We are not going to be controlled by fears and threats," Jones said this week.

The world will be watching on Saturday.

(Editing by Vicki Allen)

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Comments (33)
Animation wrote:
Why is everyone so passive? All you need is a bunch of Florida university students surrounding the pile of Korans, exercising their freedom of speech to denounce this unChristian idiot, and daring him to push them aside.
It’s so obvious – just have the counter-demonstration on the same lawn in the same place in front of the same media cameras. Then at least the Muslim world would see the opposition.

Sep 09, 2010 4:16pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
combakpro wrote:
This is an excellent article. It clearly shows the loopholes in the American Constitution, and this is generally applicable to most western societies. Things like this (abuse and mockery of others’ Religious beliefs and symbols) have happened before, in Denmark, in Netherlands etc.. All under the pretext of Freedom of Expression, as if that could be exercised unchecked no matter what. This means that such laws are hypocritical because they have replaced the Sanctity of Religion with Sanctity of Freedom of Expression, which gives the latter the status of a New Religion?? So if these regulations are in denial of religiosity’s sanctity how come do they create a “new religion” just to do that? This is big-time self-deception & Hypocrisy. The UN should issue an all-nations binding resolution that Religions are Off-Limits for the so-called Freedom of Expression abusers and that governments should intervene in such circumstances. Of course some will call this censorship, to this one could reply that such censorship is already in place by the all those who do not accept any criticism of Israel; of Homosexuality of Prostitution etc.. it is a long list of profanity, racism and bigotry under the pretext of Freedom of Expression!

Sep 09, 2010 6:13pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Ahnold wrote:
I am of a different opinion completely. What’s wrong with burning the Koran? Or the Bible? Nothing. If you are offended, don’t look. Just because you believe in God does not give you the right to declare this holy and deny me burning a book, or a flag, or any document. I am an atheist and find all religions ridiculous, so hats off to anyone who can take down the religious zealots a notch. We are in America, and this is one right I think is truly of the Enlightenment.

Sep 10, 2010 11:24am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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