Free speech: Westboro church Supreme Court case tests First Amendment
A Supreme Court case challenging the Westboro Baptist Church anti-gay protests will test the limits of free speech, with First Amendment implications for other forms of expression such as Quran burning and racist demonstrations.
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Here's where Gainesville preacher Jones reenters the picture. Was his plan to burn the stack of Qurans impassioned advocacy protected by the First Amendment or unlawful incitement to imminent lawless action?Skip to next paragraph
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Jones frequently mentioned that the act of burning the Quran would be a protected form of free speech. Many First Amendment scholars agree. But not all.
In the Islamic world's hair-trigger environment, certain kinds of symbolic speech may predictably spark deadly riots, lend ammunition to terrorist recruiters, and perhaps frame a mission for would-be assassins, government officials warned in the days before Jones's planned burning. With US forces on the front lines in Muslim countries, these are not insignificant threats, they said.
"Here you had a genuine concern on the part of our government that there was going to be hostile action taken toward our soldiers in the field," says former law professor Goldberger. "If you have the commander in the military theater, the head of the Defense Department, and other experts saying, 'Yes, there will be violence and it will be directed at our troops,' I leave it to you to put yourself in the place of the judge with that evidence in front of you."
He adds: "The answer is not as obvious as everyone assumed."
"I think it raises really hard questions," Wells says of the Quran-burning controversy, "if you know there could be harm and you know how upset people are and there are claims that they will [retaliate] at some point."
But she says the Quran-burning case would still fall on the side of protected speech because it would be difficult for the government to prove a direct link between a book burning in the United States and specific violent actions in the Islamic world.
There was no shortage of worldwide reaction to the plan to burn the Quran. Thousands of angry Muslims took to the streets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Iran, Indonesia, and elsewhere. At least four protesters died in Afghanistan, and 18 were killed in clashes with police in Kashmir.
In the US, Jones's announced plan inspired several others to commemorate the 9/11 terror attacks by burning, ripping, or otherwise destroying copies of the Quran.
Two preachers in Nashville, Tenn., used lighter fluid to burn the book. A New Jersey Transit employee was fired after his bosses learned that he'd destroyed part of a Quran during a 9/11 protest near ground zero in New York City. Police in Gainesville stopped a man from trying to set fire to a Quran during a demonstration.
As if not to be outdone, Pastor Phelps announced that he would burn both a copy of the Quran and the American flag on Sept. 11. He posted video of the burning book and flag on his Westboro Baptist Church website.
"God hates your false religion so we will burn your Quran to get your attention," Phelps said in a website message to Muslims. "Now the day of vengeance has come."
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