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Gainesville’s Rogue Pastor And the Limits of Free Speech: A Dissent

| April 3, 2011

And what is he of?

On Friday in Mazar-i-Sharif, a predominantly Shiite city in northern Afghanistan, thousands of worshipers poured out of the Blue Mosque after Friday prayer and attacked the United Nations headquarters in retaliation for the trial and burning of the Koran, on march 20, by Terry Jones, the Gainesville pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center. FlaglerLive editor Pierre Tristam wrote a defense of Jones’s First Amendment right to do as he did, repugnant as Jones’s behavior was. Thomas Brown, a retired journalist and board member of a church in Daytona Beach, writes a dissenting view.

By Thomas Brown

We cherish free speech in America and rightly so. And yet we also know that words have consequences.  So the end result is that in most cases we allow wild, hateful speech to take place and be disseminated. In other cases, we outlaw it if it poses a clear and present danger to the public.

thomas brown daytona beach

Thomas Brown

The classic legal principle that the Supreme Court issued decades ago is that you “can’t yell fire in a crowded theater if there is no fire.” Speech that could cause a deadly trampling is illegal.


But now we have the case of Terry Jones, the Gainesville, Florida,  pastor who finally made good on his threat to burn a Qu’ran as a hate spectacle on March 20. Last fall, when he first started talking about doing this ugly thing, media from around the world rushed to his door, literally, and President Obama and General Petraeus, among many others, urged Jones not to carry out his stunt, warning it would inflame orthodox Muslims in battle zones like Afghanistan.

Jones is a reverend only because he calls himself one. He has no credentials from a denomination, and his doctorate in theology is an honorary one issued by an unaccredited seminary in California. His Dove Center rose to notoriety by preaching against homosexuality and trying to discredit a gay candidate for mayor. (The candidate won anyway, thank God).  Since then, it has focused on an anti-Islam activities to gain attention–and make money. It sells books and t-shirts condemning Islam.

So how should believers in free speech respond to someone preaching hate? The traditional answer is to look away and not listen to the rubbish. Most media chose this path by not reporting his March 20 stunt that put the Quran “on trial” and ended with a tabletop burning. Yet, inevitably, the show ended up on YouTube and other Internet channels and quickly spread overseas. So far, at least 12 people have been killed in Afghan rioting that targeted foreign UN workers.

The Live Commentary

Here is a report on how news of Jones’ event spread and got exaggerated within Afghanistan. This comes from Una Moore, writing for UN Dispatch: “Local clerics drove around the city with megaphones yesterday, calling residents to protest the actions of a small group of attention-seeking, bigoted Americans. Then, during today’s protest, someone announced that not just one, but hundreds of Korans had been burned in America. A throng of enraged men rushed the gates of the UN compound, determined to draw blood.”

The U.S. has a hate-crimes law, but it can’t be used against churches. So Rev. Fred Phelps remains free to wave his “God Hates Fags” posters, and Jones can repeat his mantra of “Islam is of the devil.” However, we also have anti-terrorism laws.  One wonders why the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security didn’t do something to shut down the Jones rally when it reached the point of a bonfire. Yes, his free speech would have been violated, but Muslims around the world would have seen that America is willing to do something to protect the right of Muslims to practice their religion. If the FBI was uncertain whether such action would be constitutional, it could have applied to a federal judge for a temporary restraining order, and let the judicial system decide. Jones certainly gave enough advance notice of his stunt and made it very public. By not acting to restrain him, the U.S. government, rightly or wrongly, is viewed as complicit.

Is there something churches can do? Yes, we can stand up for the right of all to practice whatever faith they choose. We don’t have the authority to define what is “legal” in our secular nation. That’s up to the civil courts. But we do have the right to proclaim what is morally legal within our own Christian belief. Jesus Christ honored the Jewish scriptures even as he preached they were being twisted and misapplied. So far as we know, he never called for destroying statues of Roman gods, or melting down the Roman coins showing Caesar, the demigod.

Our little storefront church, New Church Family in Daytona Beach, sponsored a discussion about Islam on March 9, and it was a great learning experience. The dozen people who attended found that Christians and Muslims can talk peacefully with one another, and discover that we share many beliefs. Ironically, Preacher Jones chose to burn a holy book that has many, many verses honoring Jesus, Mary, Moses and Abraham. We cannot judge him, but we can say we totally condemn the foul things he says, and the way he recklessly pushes buttons to incite mob violence. His post-riot statement condemning the violence in Afghanistan is a lie, pure and simple. He knew this violence was likely to happen, but he chose to set it in motion anyway. We pray for the Holy Spirit to heal this deranged man.

Thomas Brown is a retired journalist and member of the board of New Church Family. This column represents his own thoughts, not necessarily the official position of the church. Reach him by email here.

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13 Responses for “Gainesville’s Rogue Pastor And the Limits of Free Speech: A Dissent”

  1. scott says:

    What about the American flags being burned and soldiers being dragged thru the streets of islamic countries?I don’t agree with the reverends views but I support his first amendment right of freedom of speech.My only regret is that he didn’t do it on 9/11

  2. Leah says:

    Mr. Brown,

    You compare apples to oranges in your analogy of the Koran burning. You state, “Yes, his free speech would have been violated, but Muslims around the world would have seen that America is willing to do something to protect the right of Muslims to practice their religion.” An individual exercising their right to freedom of speech, displayed by burning a book, does NOT equate to not allowing Muslims from practicing their religion.

    SHAME ON YOU and stop with your lies!!! I am Christian, and if someone burned a Bible, that would not give me carte blanche to riot and murder innocent people. It seems the radical Muslims in the mid east are always offended, angered, outraged, insulted, etc. and use this excuse to justify and condone their uncivilized behavior.

    God Bless Terry Jones and his courage to not waiver. And if I choose to burn a Koran that is MY RIGHT as an American; and if you don’t like that, then maybe you need to go to another country that does not allow freedom of speech. GOD BLESS AMERICA!!!!!

  3. Peter Walters says:

    In his 1821 play, Almansor, the German writer Heinrich Heine — referring to the burning of the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, during the Spanish Inquisition — wrote, “Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.” (“Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.”)

  4. John Brown says:

    The point, people, ought to be that when Jones burned that Koran he knew full well that his action would endanger innocent lives. Most Muslims would not — and did not — kill over his silly little “trial” and bonfire, but there are fanatical, hate-filled Muslims who would and did. Islam has its share of vicious, immoral nutjobs, just as Christianity has its Terry Joneses and Leahs. The man knew — he’d been warned, even by the President, for goodness sakes — that people, including American soldiers, could die. So what if he had the legal right, Leah? Does morality not matter? And you prattle on about his courage! Tell me about Jones’ courage when he’s burned a Koran on a downtown Kabul street.

  5. 91LX says:

    Just another religious wakco. How much trouble has been cause from the dawn on time because one man says his God is better than the other mans God. Its just stuipd.
    Yes this whack-a-doo does have right to burn any book he wants. But it really just comes down to common sense. He is just trying to get his 15 minutes of fame. Now at least 12 people have died because of this stunt. I can’t for this asshole to burn in hell.

  6. palmcoaster says:

    Freedom of speech can prevail, even when the righteous gets his hands tainted with the blood of innocent human beings. Would have this pastor burn the Koran if the life of his children and family would have been at risk? Maybe yes, because he is as fanatic and murderous, as the those that killed the innocent UN workers. No difference. What a waste of western civilization shown!

  7. Michael says:

    He really should not hide in his safe little town to do this, If he really beleives in his views he should go to the Middle East and burn it there. Oh thats right… he is a coward and will only put people who are actually involved over there in danger.

    • Pierre Tristam says:

      The fact that killings followed the burning of the Koran still means neither that Jones’s act was a willful incitement to murder nor that what he did created a “clear and present danger” to someone, somewhere, in the 50-some nations that consider themselves Muslim. By that rationalization, then the acts of our president–be it Bush attacking Iraq or Obama attacking Libya–are also incitements to violence and triggers of clear and present danger to someone, somewhere, who takes issue with the attacks. Are we then to judge every act by its potential consequences at the hands of fanatics, whose supply will never end? Are we to make all of our legal standards dependent on the sensibilities, or lack of sensibilities, of the most perverted and depraved extremists on the planet?

      This is where even the “clear and present danger” fails, as I see it–and where the judicial system would also fail, if it were left up to judges to interpret what is and what is not admissible speech (and why I’m with Hugo Black when it comes to this sort of thing: no law means no law.) The clear and present danger is a long-standing standard left us by Oliver Wendell Holmes in Schenck v. United States–the case of Charles Schenck accused during World War I of violating the Espionage Act for printing 15,000 pamphlets that encouraged young men to oppose the war in Europe and sign anti-conscription petitions to Congress–not break the law. Naturally the military, which always loves to claim that someone, somewhere, will be killed because of the verbal acts of someone else opposing the military (this from an institution designed primarily to kill) claimed Schenck’s pamphlet posed a colossal danger to the Republic, but the Supreme Court in a 9-0 decision rejected the argument with Holmes’ famous phrase: “The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree. When a nation is at war, many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight, and that no Court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right. It seems to be admitted that, if an actual obstruction of the recruiting service were proved, liability for words that produced that effect might be enforced.” There never was such a danger.

      And yet the clear and present danger is a weak standard that’s always left me queasy, especially this question of “proximity and degree,” which in the age of YouTube and the Internet, means that anything said in Gainesville, Florida, must be judged by its potential reaction in, say, Mazar-i-Sharif. That’s ridiculous. Learned Hand had it right, I think, when he rejected the “clear and present danger” standard–in a letter rather than an opinion, though the letter summed up his thinking in a opinion on a similar matter: “I am not wholly in love with Holmesy’s test and the reason is this. Once you admit that the matter is one of degree, while you may put it where it genuinely belongs, you so obviously make it a matter of administration, i.e. you give to Tomdickandharry, so much latitude [here Hand wrote and struck out “as his own fears may require” and continued] that the jig is at once up. Besides even their Ineffabilities, the Nine Elder Statesmen, have not shown themselves wholly immune from the “herd instinct” and what seems “immediate and direct” to-day may seem very remote next year even though the circumstances surrounding the utterance be unchanged. I own I should prefer a qualitative formula, hard, conventional, difficult to evade.””

  8. Sally-Carly says:

    And when the Muslims ask for Sharia law in US courts (as they are now doing), will we stand by and say that yes, this should be allowed so that Muslims around the work will see how “willing” America is?

    How far shall we go to NOT offend someone’s religious sensibilities?

    I have to see the cruicfix submerged in a bucket of pi$$, displayed at taxpayer expense, because I cherish the right of free speech no matter how offensive it is. Curiously, I never have heard of Christians burning and attacking those who filled the bucket…..

    “Yes, his free speech would have been violated, but Muslims around the world would have seen that America is willing to do something to protect the right of Muslims to practice their religion.”

  9. Jojo says:

    We have a long history of legal cases involving civil liberties and freedom of expression in this country. I will try to bring the debate full circle with respect to the courts decisions to shed some light on our current debate.
    In Schenk v U.S., 1919, Justice Holmes switches positions and dissents with J/Brandeis on the Doctrine of Clear & Present Danger writing only if imminent danger exists and there is no time to debate the issue.
    In Gitlow v N.Y., 1925. the majority used the “Bad Tendency Test “, the “Natural Tendency Test”, and the Probable Tendency Test”. The defendant has the burden of proof not the gov’t and we should look to the legislative branch of gov’t to make the laws.
    In Dennis v U.S., 1951, J/Frankfurther rejects the Clear & Present Danger Doctrine. Congress should forget dogmas by weighing national security and balance laws.
    In Brandenbury v Ohio, 1969, J/Black writes all political speeches are protected by 1st Amendment even if it advocates violence. In speech, anything goes. “THE ANSWER TO SPEECH IS MORE SPEECH.”
    Near v Minn, 1931,J/Hughes writes the violation of the 1st Amendment of free speech is worse. “Prior Restraint” is presumed malicious, secondary. Publishing sailing dates of troops. Loose lips sink ships. Prior Restraint is not absolute.
    NY Times v U.S., 1971 decided Supreme Court has no authority to decide National Security. J/Stewart agrees with secrecy of operation but tough luck
    Chaplinsky v N.H., 1942, (Fighting Words). Chaplinsky calls Police Ofc a fascist and arrested. J/Black, free speech is search for truth, an exposition of ideas. Free speech protects all free speech – absolutist.
    Terminello v Chicago, 1949 (Hostile Audience). J/Douglas, invites free speech, dispute. Gets people thinking. Calls it a “Heckler’s Veto” A veto over what the speaker is conveying.
    Feiner v NY, 1951(Classic Hostel Case). J/Black, take all necessary means to protect the speaker for what he has to say.
    National Socialist Party v Skokie, 1977. Hostile audience of Nazi march through Skokie. Supreme Court rules that police should protect the march. If it offends the community, don’t watch it.
    So, some of the above Supreme Court cases gives us an idea of where the court stands on freedom of speech and expression. Where do you stand???

  10. dlf says:

    Are we trying to blame this so called pastor in Gainesville for the killing of so many UN workers in another country or are we trying to excuse this act of slaughter, cold blood killings for no human logical reason? We have tried to cover up the Fort Hood shooting and I see in some print the 9-11 attack was caused by Americans being somewhere we should not have been. Now, we are fighting a new war which may cause another 9-11. When or if that happens we will cover it up by saying we should not be in this new war in Libya. We have outfitted one group of so called freedom fighters only to have them turn our guns on USA soldiers.Will we make the same stupid error in judgement in Libya or any other country?. These people ask for our help only to turn against us at a later date and new requirements.Now is the time to stop all support to countries who cannot or will not rule in a humane manner, they have not for a very long time and they will not for a very long time.

  11. Leah says:

    Mr. John Brown (any relation to Thomas Brown?),

    You state “Islam has its share of vicious, immoral nutjobs, just as Christianity has its Terry Joneses and Leahs.” So you are comparing me to the “immoral nutjobs” that kill innocent people, because I agree with freedom of speech? The fact that you resort to name calling goes to show how weak and threatened you must feel. Unlike you, I am not guilt ridden and self loathing because I was born and raised in a free society that protects freedom of speech. And in case you are unaware, freedom of speech includes the right to burn a Koran, Bible, American flag etc.

    You state “Most Muslims would not — and did not — kill over his silly little “trial” and bonfire, but there are fanatical, hate-filled Muslims who would and did.” So if this was such a silly little “trial” and bonfire, why would that be enough to incite the murder of innocent people?

    You said, “So what if he had the legal right, Leah? Does morality not matter?” Of whose morality are you speaking? Instead of questioning my morality, why don’t you question the morality of the so called fanatical, hate-filled Muslims that killed the innocent UN workers? In you’re mixed up world of moral relativism, is it OK to kill innocent people because a man 2,000 miles away burned a book?

    And lastly, you state “Tell me about Mr. Jones’ courage when he’s burned a Koran on a downtown Kabul street.” If Mr. Jones chose to exercise his freedom of speech by burning a Bible in downtown America, I am sure you would be the first one in line to protect his right to freedom of speech.

    If you are so offended at American’s having the right to practice their freedom of speech, why don’t you take your guilt ridden self over to a “more tolerant” country that doesn’t allow people to exercise their freedom of speech? Don’t let the door hit ya where the good Lord split ya!!!!!!!!!!!

  12. Dorothea says:

    According to news reports the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, instigated the massive demonstrations and killings in a speech informing citizens of the Koran burning. He is now demanding that the United States prosecute Jones for blasphemy. Karzai knows well that there is no blasphemy law in the US, but is seeking to extend and maintain his power with the Muslim extremists in his country. Karzai wants to remain in power after the US withdraws from Afghanistan. This is all about politics, not religion.

    To Sally Carly: all law in the United States is based on the US Constitution. Get over this Sharia law nonsense, a myth perpretrated by the right wing extremists in our country. This, too, is all about politics, now law.

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