The public prosecutor argued that the protest had nothing to do with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and at stake were security and peace in the community.
Saturday, April 23, 2011
Free Speech For ME But Not for THEE!
Terry Jones spent one hour in jail for refusing to pay a $1 fine. He was charged with disturbing the peace. What did the public prosecutor argue?
The judge fined each of the pastors involved a "symbolic" $1. The amount doesn't really matter. While the judge may have determined that this was the best way to signal he did not want to stifle free speech, any ruling against it on the grounds argued by the prosecutor suggests that free speech is, in fact, harmful, similar to some other act like destruction of property or assault.
This is, in fact, the same argument that the Egyptian Military used to send Maikel Nabil to prison for three years. While the judge is attempting to dissuade this behavior while keeping "peace" in the neighborhood, he basically set a bad precedent. First, does this mean that the American Socialist Party (NAZIS), Aryan Nation or KKK can now be arrested every time they step off the bus for their annual parade through whatever town they want to stir up? No. What we see instead is that the police form a blockade and keep any violence from occurring.
What about the radical Islamists who occasionally gather on the street corners and rail against the United States in a predominantly non-Islamic area of some familiar cities including NY, LA and DC? Might these not be considered dangerous to the peace of the community as it is one of the things that inspires people like Terry Jones to go out and do these things in the first place? Might it inspire such outrage that someone would attack this group and others like it?
We do not put these people in jail or fine them for such activities because free speech, so long as it does not directly incite someone to do an act of violence (ie, beat that man to death!), is protected. Even offensive speech or speech that causes outrage. People are supposed to constrain themselves from violent reaction because the physical act of hurting someone or damaging property actually does violate rights defined in the constitution. The right to not be offended does not exist.
What is being suggested here is that the Muslim community either a) enjoys some special exemption from the first amendment or b) the prosecutor believes that the Muslim community cannot constrain themselves and would react violently. It could be c) the moron prosecutor really believes he is striking a blow against the injustice of discrimination. All of these are extremely offensive reasons and serve to generally disparage the right of free speech. Regardless of how low the "peace bond" was set.
Of course, what Mr. Jones is doing, below all of the hubbub about Islam, the Quran or any idea of hate, is pushing at the boundaries of free speech in a similar manner that the Ropers and the Westboro Baptist Church have done with protesting at funerals and various other "sensitive" events. The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Church's public protests, so long as they do not tread on private property and do not defame/libel/slander a specific person by name, is a legal right under the first amendment.
As egregious as I find both the Westboro hooligans' and Mr. Jones' ideas, I believe that the Supreme Court was correct in it's ruling and that the Detroit prosecutor and judge were not. Which was the point of Mr. Jones actions in court, first refusing to pay the bond and spending a symbolic hour in jail before paying it and going on his way. He will now have a small weapon to use when he suggests that freedom of speech is being eroded on the basis of illegitimate law or interpretation and enforcement thereof.
What has been occurring in the United States for sometime is the erosion of free speech based on, not the letter of or spirit of any law, but social constructs of what is "good" or "bad" rendered by a set of people who imagine this injury to society based on their own ideology and desire to shape society as they believe it should be. It is not good enough that there is a fourteenth amendment that constrains people against discrimination in the work place or government. What they want to do is constrain people's thoughts and speech for the same aspirations for society in general.
While this may sound like a good idea, it is not. I submit not only the plight of Maikel Nabil as proof of what this would look like if it continued to bear fruit, but the picture I posted recently of a man in Syria, holding up a sign that asks for freedom. Further along in the series was a man holding a sign decrying Assad, the Baathists, etc, etc, etc. In Libya, in Yemen, Bahrain and Egypt, people are routinely imprisoned, tortured and killed for expressing ideas that are clearly offensive and "dangerous" to "peace and security".
We insist that these arrests and deaths are wrong and that they violate people's "universal rights". We do so because two hundred and some odd years ago, a bunch of men writing and talking about freedom insulting the king or any of his loyalists in the colonies, could be caught, hung or imprisoned for doing nothing but talking or writing their views. An insult to the king and considered dangerous for inciting revolution. That it did.
We enshrined that right to free speech and hold it dear because we know that the difference between a Syrian on the street with a sign that reads "freedom" being shot and those of our founders risking the same two hundred years ago are essentially the same. We protect speech at every turn because we know that when we stop using the free market place of ideas to counter bad ideas and, instead, demand the government act against speech we do not like, we are giving them power over all speech. We do it because we refuse to be the people shot in the streets by their own government for voicing contrary opinions and disturbing the "peace and security" of a town, city, country, state or nation.
Using the same legal tool as dictators to destroy dissent. Starting with telling people what they can or cannot say in public space. A public space that is increasingly given leeway for rather ugly speech against anyone who is not black, latino, gay, Muslim or any other considered minority, while all other is suspected.
This is not Qena, Egypt where the Egyptian Copts and Muslims clash. This is the United States where every side can be heard and every side is constrained to control themselves against violence. That is the only real hope of peace and security inside these borders or out.