Does the U.S. First Amendment protect burning Korans?
I got back to Calgary yesterday after a week on the road promoting Ethical Oil. I'm thrilled with how it's been received. As I write this, the book remains at #4 on Amazon.ca's non-fiction best-seller list.
I'll write an update on my book tour, either tonight if I'm not too tired, or tomorrow for sure, including a bunch of links to some TV and radio debates I've had.
Here's a fun story out of Saskatoon, where two professional protesters crashed my book signing event at McNally Robinson yesterday, shouting at the (all-female) staff and disrupting things so badly that police had to come. The event went ahead, and we sold a good number of books. I think it proved my point, though: anti-oilsands protesters are pretty brave in a liberal democracy like Canada. Try pulling that stunt in Saudi Arabia or Iran, and they wouldn't be professional protesters anymore, or anything else for that matter.
I thought the Star-Phoenix article was well-reported, but it left out my counter-heckle that got a few laughs: I asked one of the protesters (named Cody wearing a ski toque during the summer, you know the type) if he bought carbon credits to offset all the marijuana he burns in any given week.
(He did not. Cody, why do you hate the polar bears so?)
Anyways, more on my book tour later. Here's my latest Sun column about the constitutional right to burn Korans (the Sun apparently prefers the spelling Qur'an).
Cherished American right under fire
Terry Jones, the Florida pastor whose greatest accomplishment until last month was growing a Hulk Hogan moustache, did not go through with his reality-TV threat to burn a stack of Qur’ans on the anniversary of 9/11.
It took a phone call from the U.S. Secretary of Defense to talk him out of it. Even David Petraeus, the four-star general charged with leading the war on terror on a day-to-day basis, cleared everything less important from his schedule to do a TV interview on the subject.
Speaking of the Pentagon, they’re not averse to a little book-burning themselves. Last spring, they confiscated a stash of Bibles sent to the U.S. base in Bagram. The Bibles were written in the Afghan languages of Pashto and Dari.
It’s illegal for U.S. soldiers to evangelize religion, and the brass guessed that was the purpose of the books. So they were confiscated them and, like all trash, the Bibles were burned.
Book burning should give us the creeps, for good reason. Historically, to burn books was to try to burn ideas themselves, such as the Nazi bonfires of “degenerate” books, or China’s Cultural Revolution. Cambodia’s Communists, the Khmer Rouge, went one step further: They killed anyone who wore glasses.
But burning books today isn’t always about censorship — in the age of the Internet it’s harder to physically destroy an idea. Burning books — your own books, that is — is like burning the American flag or an effigy of George W. Bush. It’s shorthand for dissent, designed for a reality-TV world. That’s what Jones was planning to do: Symbolically burn Islam.
It’s crude. But it’s a step up from burning people. In the month of February 2006 alone, more than 200 people were murdered by Muslim radicals protesting Danish cartoons of Muhammads.
American liberals have a long tradition of burning things they don’t like, from draft cards to brassieres to the American flag. It’s peaceful but provocative. In other words, it’s very American.
At least that’s what we’re told. But then Derek Fenton tried it. He’s a New Jersey transit worker who protested against the proposed Ground Zero mosque by burning a Qur’an.
He was fired by his company — a government agency.
But surely our western, liberal tradition will save him from political correctness masquerading as tolerance — political correctness that is really nothing more than fear of angry protests and even violence.
So let’s ask Stephen Breyer, a judge on the U.S. Supreme Court who was asked about Qur’an burning and free speech on TV last week.
“It doesn’t mean you can shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre,” he said. “Why? Because people will be trampled to death. And what is the crowded theatre today? What is the being trampled to death?”
But the judge got the quote wrong. In a 1919 case, the U.S. Supreme Court compared peacefully handing out anti-war leaflets to “falsely” shouting fire. It was an awful decision, and it was thrown out by the court in the 1960s, in favour of more expansive liberty. But even that 1919 case criticized “false” alarms.
Whether or not there’s a fire in a theatre is a matter of fact. Whether or not there’s a political crisis is a matter of opinion. Jones and Fenton think there’s a crisis. That’s their right.
When a judge says the violent reaction of foreign terrorists might be enough to take away our free-speech rights, it’s time to worry.