Quran burning and US law

Al Jazeera explains why a pastor’s controversial plans to burn copies of the Quran are legal under American law.

Koran burning
There is no way that Quran-burning can be stopped in the US, where freedom of expression is guaranteed by law [EPA]

As a fringe Florida pastor courts global controversy by pushing ahead with plans to burn copies of the Quran, many in the Islamic world will be looking on and asking why the US government does not simply ban the event from taking place.

After all, Barack Obama has warned that violence could erupt as the pastor hands what the US president describes as a “recruiting bonanza” to al-Qaeda, and millions of Muslims around the world are likely to take serious offence at such an act. Surely there is a simple answer; just prevent Terry Jones from carrying out his plan. 

But the First Amendment to the US constitution, one of the sacrosanct documents of the American bill of rights, prevents the government from interfering in personal freedom of expression, assembly and religion. In the US, the right to express oneself- no matter how offensive that expression might be- is seen as a fundamental part of what it is to be American.

So while authorities in the US can condemn the Quran-burning event in the strongest possible terms – and they have, from the US president downwards – they have no legal power to stop it from happening. 

Freedom of expression

The US constitution’s first amendment reads: “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.”

It comes down to a simple principle; that US law allows people to hold whatever views they want and to express those views in almost any way they chose.  

“In a free society, at least in this free society, people have a right to be intolerant morons and there’s no question that this pastor is all of that,” Bob Corn-Revere, a First Amendment lawyer and partner at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, told the Reuters news agency.  “He is an ignorant, intolerant moron, but he’s protected by the law.”

This “tolerance for intolerance” is an intrinsic part of American democracy – and will be respected even if, as in this case, there appears to be a genuine risk of violence or even death as a result of the pastor’s actions.

Slippery slope

Defenders of the US constitution argue the protection the First Amendment provides outweighs the credible threat that abuse of the right can pose. “That’s the slippery slope about the First Amendment; if you permit common sense to prevail over principle, then you start giving up the principle,” Gregg Thomas, partner at Thomas & LoCicero, told Reuters.

“The values that are embedded in the First Amendment long-term – while maybe not in this immediate circumstance – are so valuable to our democracy that you just can’t change the rules when it gets tough,” he added.

So by simply announcing the “International Burn a Quran Day” on his property, Jones has so far not committed any crime. The only crime he could be charged with is the relatively minor offence of building an open-air fire without a license to do so.

Jones has been turned down for a “burn permit” from local authorities, but even that could be legally risky, Corn-Revere said. “If you restrict someone’s burn permit, not because the fire is a threat to the safety of people around, but because you don’t like what is being burned, then that becomes a First Amendment issue,” he said.

Laws do exist in the US that prohibit the “incitement of violence,” but lawyers said it might be difficult to apply that to Jones’ mere announcement that he was going to burn the Quran.

In the US, certain freedoms lie at the heart of the social system. The right to offend people by the expression of controversial views is one of them, and that is not up for debate.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies