Book Burning and A Right Wing Defense of Free Speech

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>I don't believe that burning the Koran is a good idea because Sarah Palin now officially opposes it, despite my conviction that what's good for Palin politically (presumably denouncement of this conflagration) is bad for the U.S.A.  I'll grant at least this one exception to that rule. Besides, Palin's professed opposition to the book burning seems primarily intended to legitimize her opposition to Cordoba House. "People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to," her Facebook page proclaims, "but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation -- much like building a mosque at Ground Zero."
   
I am always most wary (to say the least) of efforts to silence people by condemning their speech as insensitive, partly because, (as I've noted in an earlier post,) when informal pleas to exercise rights sensitively fail, they're apt to be followed by formal legal demands not to exercise rights at all. But even if you consider the offense rendered by grossly insensitive and provocative speech justification for obstructing if not formally prohibiting it, you have to question this increasingly popular analogy between burning the Koran and building a religious community center.
   
The flaws in this equation of alleged offenses should be obvious, (and Jon Stewart had some fun with it this week), but these days the obvious can't be stated often enough. In Florida, one mean and crazy pastor is exercising his right to engage in profoundly offensive, symbolic speech, which, given the reverence in which some hold the American flag, is not entirely unlike conducting a constitutionally protected flag burning. Good to hear Sarah Palin defend his right to do so, and I eagerly await her defense of the right to burn a flag and her opposition to proposed constitutional amendments banning flag burning. In New York, moderate Muslims are endeavoring to build Cordoba House, with the approval of the local community board and the city's mayor. Whether or not you believe that they intend to promote peace and interfaith understanding, or will succeed in doing so, you'd be hard pressed to compare their effort to, say, the public burning of Christian bible or even Franklin Graham's denunciation of Islam as evil.
   
Now that General Petraeus, the State Department and FBI have voiced concern about the proposed Koran burning, and now that it has already sparked riots in Afghanistan, (reminiscent of the Mohammed cartoon riots in 2006) even Graham has joined the bi-partisan chorus opposing it. Christian supremacists, in particular, need to disassociate themselves from this extremist act so widely condemned and associated with an increased threat of terrorism. At TPM.com, Josh Marshall has already suggested that right-wing Islamophobes bear some responsibility for the book burning: "They keep stirring the pot, churning out demonizing rhetoric and hate speech. Then some marginal figure does something nuts and suddenly ... oh, wait, I didn't mean burn Korans. Where'd you get that idea from?"
   
Still I don't expect this episode to result in many calls for prohibiting hate speech, or enacting legislation akin to Britain's repressive law against inciting religious hatred. At least, we probably won't be hearing such calls for speech prohibitions from the right: It's not as if a secularist, inspired by angry atheists who loudly denounce belief in God and the gospels as evil, were about to burn the Bible.  I'd like to believe that conservative anti-libertarians who now acknowledge the right of people on their side to engage in profoundly provocative, hateful speech will hesitate to attack the speech rights of their opponents on the left, no matter how offensively those rights are exercised. But I, for one, have never believed in miracles.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and spiked-online.com. Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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