The Rev. Terry Jones, the leader of a small congregation in Florida, recently announced he would burn copies of the Quran on September 11. A broad spectrum of figures in public life, including President Barack Obama and Gen. David Petraeus, urged him not to.
And soon, he said he wouldn’t, offering a face-saving excuse.
What explains this turn of events? The answer could well be the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the very same amendment that protects Jones’ freedom of speech. The First Amendment allows — in fact it encourages — people to disagree with what Jones planned and to condemn it in public.
Instead of having the government punish people who say intolerant things, the American system relies on people to criticize each other for violating what they think are the proper norms of tolerance and equal respect in a democratic society. People will sometimes disagree about these norms, but that disagreement is also part of free expression.
This system is by no means perfect, and its imperfections seem most obvious when you are on the receiving end of another person’s hate-filled screed.
Nevertheless, its advantage is that it allows social norms to evolve and adjust to new problems and new circumstances in ways that rigid criminal penalties cannot. It allows freedom for obnoxious people, but it also lets people object to demagogues and hate mongers and turn the weight of public opinion against them.
The best response to people like Jones is not to throw them in prison. Rather, it is to criticize their actions as contrary to our country’s most hallowed traditions. Over the long run, using freedom of expression to promote tolerance and denounce intolerance is how Americans have preserved their experiment in democracy.
Via @kalimkassam. When a so-called “liberal” Supreme Court Justice starts talking like this, unfortunately, I fear many Americans learned precisely the opposite lesson – that less free speech, not more, is needed to combat acts of intolerance (especially where one belief system in particular is involved).
Update: Justice Breyer has clarified his remarks.