I teach Media Law and Ethics during the fall semester, so each year the “9/11 post” has some special resonance for me.
There always seems to be something going on which makes it easy to tie the terrorist attacks on America, now nine years ago, in with a discussion of what it means to be American.
One of our topics in the class is the First Amendment – which actually we discuss all semester as all the areas of the class’ subject matter impinge on freedom of expression, including freedom of the press.
Last year I wrote about concerns about civility – mostly the lack of it – in public discourse. I don’t think that’s improved any. But this year, the news around the Sept. 11 anniversary has been filled with another type of rhetorical excess.
A pastor named Terry Jones, who heads a small Pentecostal church in Gainesville, Fla., probably couldn’t have been picked out of a crowd of two by most people in that city a month ago. But he’s become a figure of worldwide notoriety in the last week because of his threat to burn copies of the Koran tomorrow in observance of the 9/11 anniversary.
The event, which the pastor had at first cancelled yesterday, at the urging of U.S. government and military officials and religious leaders, could still happen, according to the latest reports as I write.
(A random note: As an alumnus of the University of Florida, I find it a little ironic that this is happening in Gainesville, generally considered a bastion of liberalism in otherwise conservative and rural north central Florida.)
I’ve been interested in the response from this from a variety of quarters – especially that people who can’t seem to agree on much else seem to think this is a bad idea. Everyone from the President to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Sarah Palin and Franklin Graham have expressed concerns that this will possibly expose American troops in the Middle East or other Americans abroad to harm, and inflame Muslim populations already disposed not to like America. Demonstrations against it have already taken place in Afghanistan and Indonesia.
It’s ill-advised, but would it be American to say he can’t do it?
Officials and news media in other countries, especially those less democratic than us, have wondered out loud why the President doesn’t just step in and prevent this from happening. (How he would do that, no one has suggested.) The obvious answer is that in America, we don’t do things that way.
Back in that media law class, we talked about this issue today, students generally reaching the consensus that, as one student put it, “This is just stupid.”
But the First Amendment gives Jones the right to do it. During the class period, in another context, I mentioned the work of Anthony Lewis, longtime New York Times reporter who has written extensively about freedom of speech and of the press. One of his books is entitled “Freedom for the Thought that We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment.”
Freedom for the thought that we hate. What a concept.
As I told my class today, the beauty of the First Amendment is that it protects expression that we like, but it also protects expression that we wish would just go away – if you’ve ever been irritated by a New York Times column, a Michael Moore movie, or a broadcast by Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, you can relate to this.
I don’t know whether Terry Jones will follow through on his book-burning threat tomorrow. Personally, I hope he doesn’t. The way to respond to an idea you don’t like is not to try to eradicate it by force. If your argument is legitimately better, it must win on the evidence.
Tomorrow is a day of remembrance for this nation and among the things we should remember are the values this nation was founded on. People have a right to practice a faith that we might not embrace ourselves, and they have a right to say things with which we’re going to disagree.
And they can have that without our rights to the same things being diminished at all. That’s the beauty of America.