Book Burning and A Right Wing Defense of Free Speech

>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, 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.

Presented by

Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

Saving the Bees

Honeybees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy. A short documentary considers how desperate beekeepers are trying to keep their hives alive.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

From This Author

Just In