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First Amendment? Who Cares?

Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech. Heady words to be sure, but apparently in Dearborn, Michigan, ones to be honored more in the breach than the observance. As most of you recognize, they are some of the words of the first amendment, guaranteeing all Americans the right to speak publicly about the issues that concern them. And it is equally binding against state and local governments, thanks to the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the fourteenth amendment.

That is, of course, unless you’re Terry Jones and want to protest in Dearborn. Then, the local authorities will demand a “peace bond,” and if you don’t provide one, they arrest you and put you in jail. To be clear, Jones didn’t protest. He did refuse to pay for the peace bond, which is when the judge tossed him in the klink. In effect, he was jailed for a thought crime; he was jailed for something he might do, not something he did. Even more egregiously, he was jailed for what someone else might do.

The prosecutors put on evidence that Jones’ protest would be likely to breach the peace. According to Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, the complaint — based on a 19th-Century law — was an attempt to prevent Jones from breaching the peace. “We thought it was important because of public safety,” a spokesman for Worthy said. The prosecutor put on no evidence that Jones’ protest would breach the peace, however. The evidence they produced did show that others would breach the peace, though.

During morning testimony, Dearborn Police Chief Ronald Haddad said there had been at least four serious threats made against Jones from metro Detroiters, raising the likelihood of violence if the protest were held. Haddad testified that Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini, who heads the Islamic Center, told him that for some members of his mosque, burning the Quran was considered a major crime. Qazwini expressed concern about how some young members of his mosque might react to Jones, Haddad testified. Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Robert Moran said in court that Qazwini talked about how some feel Quran-burning “is worse than more than 1,000 deaths. That’s what the citizens of this society believe.”

The number of things wrong with the prosecution go way beyond their failure to understand the rules on hearsay evidence. They do include a failure to understand clear and consistent Supreme Court rulings on free speech, as well as an inability to differentiate between America and other “societies.” The Supreme Court has made it clear that threats against a speaker are not grounds for violating the first amendment, nor are general threats of violent reactions to the speaker’s message. And Moran suggesting that “citizens” of this “society” believe that burning a book is worse than 1,000 deaths is simply appalling. What society does he mean? He certainly doesn’t mean Americans; nobody could make a case that that was an American belief. Does he mean Muslims? If he does, is he suggesting that they are citizens of a different society? He is, among other things, guilty of pandering to a minority, as well as butchering the English language. And who cares what the members of a mosques consider a major crime? We don’t, in America, allow private bodies to decide what are crimes, whether major or not.

All the foregoing pales in comparison to the damage the Wayne County prosecutors have done to the Constitution. In the name of placating a violent minority, the authorities in Michigan have decided to strip a citizen of his rights. This is so major a problem that even the ACLU, normally reticent to defend anything right of center, has joined in the chorus of voices excoriating Judge Somers, the Wayne County prosecutors, and the police chief.

Wayne State University professor Robert Sedler, an expert in constitutional law, said the trial was “bizarre” and that Worthy “should have known better.” “The judge should have thrown out the case,” Sedler said. If protesters intend to be peaceful and are expressing their views, the government can’t make them pay in order to express their First Amendment rights, he said. And the ACLU of Michigan attacked all parties who sought to restrict Jones — Dearborn police, prosecutors, and the district judge who oversaw the trial.

“This is a complete abuse of the court process, and all those involved should be ashamed,” said Rana Elmir of the ACLU Michigan office. “The prosecutor’s office and the Dearborn court turned the First Amendment on its head. What happened today should never have happened.”

Aside from that, there is the problem of what commentator Pamela Geller calls Dearborn’s “soft bigotry” of low expectations: “The city of Dearborn’s position is that Muslims are so violent and irrational that they won’t be able to control themselves if Jones holds a protest? And he has to pay for damages? Why wouldn’t the marauding Muslim hordes pay the damages if they are doing the damage? And if they get violent, why aren’t they in jail?”

Looking at the larger perspective, Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch puts it succinctly:

“Yet it has been done now, and the precedent set that a man has been arrested, jailed, and fined for the Orwellian crime of planning to hold a politically incorrect protest. Whatever one may think of Terry Jones and his book-burning (and I am not a fan of book-burning myself), every free citizen should be supporting his right to protest in Michigan. Muslims should not be immune from criticism and protest in America any more than anyone else is. To restrict Jones’ right to protest in front of a mosque is to send the signal that violent intimidation works, and that those who killed people in Afghanistan because of Jones’ Koran-burning have achieved their ultimate goal: to make Islam immune from criticism because every potential critic will be afraid to speak out.”

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