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Quran Burning: Protected Free Speech?

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

This famous line, most often misattributed to the French author and philosopher Voltaire, was actually written by another author to describe Voltaire's attitude about a book burning, which took place at the command of the French government. Now, we have another book burning in the news, and we should ask not only, what is the American attitude about our right to "say anything," but what is the American law?

According to a report by CNN, Reverend Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Church in Gainesville, Florida, has announced that his congregation will hold a Quran burning as a "warning to the radical element of Islam" on this year's anniversary of 9/11. Several religious leaders have condemned the act and General David Petraeus has asked the Reverend to reconsider, as the action may endanger troops in Afghanistan and possibly elsewhere in the world. According to CNN, the Reverend has said, "We have firmly made up our mind, but at the same time, we are definitely praying about it."

What legal free speech rights do the Reverend and his church members have to protest with a Quran burning? Although freedom of speech is one of the most cherished (and sometimes divisive) freedoms we posses, free speech is not the same as completely unfettered speech. The Supreme Court has long placed limits on hate speech, defamatory speech, threats, and obscene speech. The body of law concerning the First Amendment has taken more than a century to build and can be a life-long study. However in brief, a few cases in particular might question the limits of free speech in this kind of situation.

In the cases of R. A. V. v. City of St. Paul and Virginia v. Black the Supreme Court struck down city ordinances prohibiting cross burning. Although the Court did say in Virginia, that a law prohibiting cross burning as a threat would be constitutional, cross burnings as "messages of shared ideology," are a protected form of free speech. These cases are strong examples of speech that is not popular, but that must be protected. However, the limits are clear. As the Court wrote in Virginia, true threats are not protected under the First Amendment, "a State may choose to prohibit ... those forms of intimidation that are most likely to inspire fear of bodily harm."

In this country, unpopular acts like the march of the neo-Nazis through Skokie, Illinois, or even burning the American flag, are often are protected free speech under the First Amendment. But when speech crosses over into incitement to hate, it may be limited by law. This is a chance for Americans to talk about what speech we should allow, even if we don't like it, and what speech can and should be limited because it has, in the words of Justice Frank Murphy, it has such a limited "social value" in the search for truth.

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