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An Ugly, But Legal, Form of Free Speech

Benetta Standly,
ACLU of Florida
Howard Simon,
ACLU of Florida
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September 9, 2010

The Dove World Outreach Center plans to commemorate the September 11 terrorist attacks by burning copies of the Quran in a presumably sincere, but woefully misguided, belief that America is at war with the Islamic faith.

Burning books conjures up images of a time when Nazi brutality against a religious minority was state-sanctioned policy. The community will surely respond as suggested by University of Florida President Bernard Machen; by condemning post-9/11 intolerance of Muslims and people of Arab and south Asian descent and reaffirming a commitment to religious and ethnic diversity. Such a reaffirmation is urgently needed at this sad period in American history, when Islamophobia (really, anti-Muslim bigotry) may be becoming mainstream political rhetoric.

The ACLU of Florida encourages its members to stand with others in the community to protect the Muslim community’s religious freedom to practice its faith.

It is important that the voices of decency not let the book-burners and taunts of the bigots dominate the conversation — and ensure that the German writer Heinrich Heine’s prophesy (“Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.”) is not repeated.

But with the guarantee of religious freedom for all, the fundamental American right to protest — an essential element of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression — should also be honored.

As the Constitution protects the right to burn an American flag as a political protest, for the Ku Klux Klan to rally at a state capitol, for neo-Nazis to march down an American street, then surely there is a right to burn a Quran or any other sacred symbol.

As the Supreme Court said more than 60 years ago, a principal “function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.”

That constitutional principle protected freedom of speech for the racist and virulently anti-Semitic Father Terminello, who gave a racially charged rant to a restless crowd in Chicago in the 1940s. But it also protected the right of black college students to peacefully protest racially segregated restaurants in Louisiana — and Rosa B. Williams’ protests of racially segregated facilities and department stores in Gainesville, almost two decades later.

The Dove World’s religiously intolerant book-burning stunt should remind us that constitutional principles protecting their right to protest also protect everyone’s right to protest — including the Gainesville community’s right to protest Dove World’s intolerance.

But defending the right of everyone to advance their point of view by whatever nonviolent methods they choose does not mean we should refrain from condemning the objectives of the protest. Bigotry should be condemned for what it is.

Those of us who will use freedom of speech to condemn the burning of Qurans and the distressing intolerance that will be on display on September 11 also need to protect the constitutional right to engage in hateful and bigoted speech. The legal principles that protect the Dove World’s freedom of speech, as ugly and intolerant as it will be, also protect freedom of speech for everyone else. Weaken it for them, and we weaken it for everyone.

September 11 should be a reaffirmation of the principles that make America the beacon of liberty it still is — religious liberty and freedom of speech. We should demonstrate to the nation and the world how these uniquely American values work together.

(Originally posted in The Gainesville Sun.)

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