Disgusting speech is still protected speech

DISGUSTING SPEECH IS STILL PROTECTED SPEECH…. I can appreciate the temptation to look for ways to restrict Terry Jones’ free-speech rights. The crackpot is, after all, indirectly getting people killed. But such restrictions are still a very bad idea.

To briefly recap for those just joining us, radical Christian cleric Terry Jones burned a Koran on March 20, as part of the sad little man’s cry for attention. U.S. media outlets, who’d reported on the fringe pastor’s original plan last September, blew Jones off this time, and the stunt was largely ignored.

But news of the Floridian’s antics nevertheless spread, slowly but surely, and reached Afghanistan when President Karzai drew attention to it, demanding the U.S. and U.N. to “bring to justice the perpetrators of this crime.” Late last week, a trio of angry mullahs railed against Jones, creating a riot in Mazar-i-Sharif, with thousands of enraged Muslims attacking a United Nations facility in retaliation for the American’s actions, killing at least 12 people. Violent protests continued throughout the weekend, with multiple reports of deaths and serious injuries, including some involving civilians.

Yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) expressed dismay over the developments, and raised the prospect of possible hearings. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told CBS, “I wish we could find a way to hold people accountable. Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war.”

At an emotional level, this may have a certain appeal, but placing legal limits on Americans’ free-speech rights, even ridiculous Americans with no sense of decency or restraint, is the wrong move.

Adam Serwer explained very well that the U.S. “has all the laws against Qu’ran burning it needs: Zero.”

The adjustment that needs to be made here is among those who would react to hateful speech with violence. To abandon fundamental freedoms in the fight against terrorism is to abandon the very things the U.S. is supposed to be defending. […]

The Supreme Court recently dealt with this question in the case involving the homophobic protests staged by the Westboro Baptist Church at the funerals of U.S. servicemembers. One does not lose the right to free speech simply by using that right in a reprehensible fashion — otherwise the entire concept would be meaningless. Because this incident indirectly lead to people actually dying rather than simply hurt feelings, it may seem like a more difficult question. But it’s not.

I’d just add that conservatives who might be inclined to agree with Lindsey Graham — or, for that matter, Graham himself — may want to pause to consider the next step in their argument. Some lunatic pastor did something crazy, and now his actions are being used to fuel violence. Graham, among others, is open to legal remedies to limit developments that might inspire terrorism.

If that seems wise to conservatives, I’d remind them that plenty of officials have noted that Bush-era torture policies and the very existence of Gitmo also provide rhetorical fuel for terrorists. And adopting legal remedies to eliminate these problems is easy and constitutional — though Graham and his allies oppose them.