The unabridged first amendment

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

This week, as I prepared to discuss the first amendment of the US Constitution with my students, I found myself pondering the meaning of the statement “Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” especially in light of the Qur’an burning controversy in Gainesville. The Reverend Terry Jones, of the Dove World Outreach Center, had planned to burn as many copies of the Qur’an as he could gather on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

Now, here is a case that definitely touches upon the heart of the first amendment. It involves the rights of a religious congregation to assemble and reduce another religion’s holy book to cinder. How could this be possible?

In simple terms, it could be possible because, as symbolic speech, this act is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. That congress shall make no law applies here. However, it is not that simple. Abridgment of the First Amendment, though prior restraint,  is possible in situations involving national security as well as clear and present danger to public safety. The Gainsville case brings up both issues. Nevertheless, the handling of the controversy purposefully avoided any mention of either stipulation, at least not on the part of the federal government.

Indeed, the Federal government, from starting with the president, deplored the situation. General Petreus denounced it as a potential danger to American troops, and Secretary Clinton hoped that the press would stop covering it. On the local level, though, the City of Gainesville did act. It denied Jones and his flock a burning permit, on the grounds of “public safety and environmental protection“. In other words, this is a local application of the Clear and Present Danger doctrine. The thing is, though, that Jones would merely risk a fine, and until just a few hours, he intended to go ahead with the plan.

He apparently decided to back down. He will now travel to New York to convince Imam Feisal Rauf to relocate a planned Muslim Community Center away from ground zero. For Reverend Jones, this is a done deal, or at least that is how he represented it to the media. Imam Feisal and the developers of the Park51 deny that such a deal has even been discussed, according to CNN.

I wonder what the pastor plans to do about that.

The situation, aside from touching upon the first amendment, also sheds light on the nature of today’s press. In the past week, coverage has been relentless.  He was on Rick’s List, and on Fox, and on ABC, etc, etc, ad nauseum. It reached absurd proportions, considering that this is a really small church group.Probably Brian Stelter, of The New York Times, put it best. He merely asked if there was a way of keeping track of Terry Jones’ media appearances.

With all the scrutiny, did the media make matters worse? According to at Chris Coumo, from ABC news, the answer is yes.

Naturally, not everyone will agree. The press is there to report on matters of public interest. That is the Jeffersonian ideal. Nevertheless, shouldn’t we expect the press to show some sense of proportion?

In hindsight, not only members of the press, like Cuomo and Stelter, pondered this question. The AP, Fox, ABC, NBC, and CBS all issued statements about how they would cover the event. The AP, furthermore, explicitly said that it would not publish any pictures depicting the Qur’an set ablaze.

Self-censorship is still the most effective way to abridge the First Amendment, at least in this case. The press strategized, but did not get to act on its strategy, and Pastor Jones decided to pull the plug on his own plans. His stated reason is, again, the relocation of Park51. Unstated, though, is all the pressure he must have received over the past week, and by that I don’t just mean the death threats, or even to public uproar. I’m referring to getting calls from the Secretary of Defense, visits from the FBI, and pressure from Gainsville city officials, who warned people to “stay away” from the site of the Dove World Outreach Center, and to remain vigilant because “the Gainsville police department is depending on you to be their eyes and ears in the community.”  That is a pretty ominous statement.

I began this post thinking about the first amendment, and pondering whether or not it should be abridged in situations like Gainsville. I don’t really have a conclusive answer. Based on the actions of government officials, it is clear that Reverend Jones’ actions would be protected under the first amendment. However, the rights of the immediate community, and concerns about national interest should also be taken into account. In the end, the Reverend may have found a crafty way out of his conundrum, one that places the ball on Park51’s court.

We’ll see how the media reports on that.