I wrote the stuff below a few days ago and for some reason didn’t post it at the time. But the arrest of “[s]ix men from northern England . . . after they filmed themselves burning a copy of the Quran on the anniversary of 9/11 and then posted the footage on YouTube [AOL News]” prompted me to post it this evening. What I wrote then and post now applies by analogy to the UK and any other part of the world that thinks of itself as civilized and moral.
One of Ed Brayton’s recent posts reminded me to say something about the City of Gainesville, Florida, sending the pastor who threatened to burn Qur’an’s a bill for security costs. Ed primarily addressed the legality of trying to recover the costs. I want to address another aspect of sending him the bill that Ed didn’t dwell on.
No matter how crazy, no matter how ill advised, no matter how potentially dangerous, the government should not do anything that discourages protected expression whatever form it takes. And sending someone a bill certainly has a stiffening effect, if not on them on others. With the exception of saying something that will have immediate measureable negative consequences on others, as a citizen, I should be able to say what I will about anything anyway I want to say it. If I want to burn something that belongs to me or that I acquired legally to emphasize my point and it doesn’t risk starting a larger fire or creating significant pollution, that is my right. My opinions and my way of expressing them can and should be weighted and perhaps criticized on their merits. But no government official, no General, no Secretary of Defense, no President, should ever say anything other than that such activity, such expression, is protected expression.
Before the proposed Qur’an burning several government officials, including a commanding general, the Secretary of Defense of the United States and the President of the United States and other high government officials condemned the suggested activity while giving no more than lip service to the only public opinion they should have ever expressed, “This is and should be a protected expression.” While individual and group expression should only be limited if “such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or cause such action [emphasis added, Brandenburg v. Ohio],” government official’s should be limited in their response. Where there is no specific requirement, they should at least be self-limiting. Of course, government officials do have the right and, in some cases, even the obligation to address the policy implications of the content of any expression of individuals or groups. Beyond that, they should never address the expression itself.
In other words, a government official can and sometimes should say something like, “I strongly disagree with John Doe’s view concerning (fill in the blank) for the following reasons.” What no government official should ever say is, “I disagree with the way John Doe chooses to express that view.” While I prefer addressing a view with which I disagree, in an open moral society, a private citizen should be free address the view, the person expressing the view or the way that view is expressed.
Just so I don’t get accused of hypocrisy (again), I’d feel the same way about government interference with burning the Bible, the Flag, Ras Shamra Parallels, volume II, or anything else that a person owns and chooses to destroy or desecrate as an expression of opinion. And I think this about whatever that thing may symbolize or whoever may hold other examples of that thing dear. But in most cases, I will likely still think them crazy for wanting to do such a thing and, in some cases, I will think it unnecessarily dangerous.