VARIOUS TEXTS: In the US, Freedom of Expression is Gospel

Re.: Burning of the Koran

In the US, freedom of expression is gospel*

If there is any fixed star in the US constitutional constellation, it is made up of the 45 words of the First Amendment*, which protects freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition. It is inalienable*, indelible and ingrained* in the American psyche. It is what makes Americans American.

Although there are disputes periodically about the application of the First Amendment in certain contexts, such as hate speech, rap lyrics or flag burning in a country where the Stars and Stripes is revered, the Supreme Court has so far resisted attempts to limit it with the kinds of laws against inciting religious or racial hatred that exist in many European countries.

In threatening to burn hundreds of copies of the Koran, Pastor Terry Jones had behind him not only the ghosts of the Pilgrim Fathers — who settled America in search of religious freedom of expression — and the weight of the 1791 Bill of Rights, but two more recent legal precedents.

In 1969, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Clarence Brandenburg, a Ku Klux Klan leader in rural Ohio, who had organised a rally during which hooded Klansmen delivered white supremacist speeches. The court held that the government could not punish inflammatory* speech merely because it advocated violence — only if it was likely to incite “imminent* lawless action”.

Unless Mr Jones had burned the Koran in the middle of a tinder-dry forest, or burnt a stolen copy, it would have been hard to say that he had broken the law, according to Robert Goldstein, a constitutional expert at the University of Oakland in Michigan.

A further ruling in 1989 upheld the rights of individuals to burn the US flag for symbolic purposes. In the case of the Texan Gregory Lee Johnson’s anti-Reagan protest, the justices overturned a Texas statute that made it a crime to desecrate a valuable object.

Jack Balkin, Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment at Yale Law School, said: “If you can burn the flag for symbolic purposes, I assume you could probably burn the Koran, presuming it is your own.”

He adds: “The American solution to accommodating* differences and beliefs and opinion is to allow everyone to say things, no matter how hateful, with the assumption that others will counter them. It’s the ‘marketplace of ideas’.”

He believes that American public opinion was horrified by Mr Jones but “it’s all a question of how much tolerance we have for the possibility that things might boil over. And I guess the answer to that is ‘a lot’.” The price of the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment, says Professor Goldstein, is “that a lot of very dumb things get done in its name”.

As for whether a ritualistic burning of the Koran would be allowed to go ahead in the UK, Padraig Reidy, of Index on Censorship, which promotes freedom of expression, believes the answer is “yes”. Although the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 created an offence in England and Wales of inciting hatred against a person on the ground of their religion, Mr Reidy says that it would probably be applied to burning the Koran only if it were done in an area full of Muslims or others likely to feel harassed by it.
c. 580 words
TimesOnline, Sep. 10, 2010

* gospel - Evangelium, Heilsbotschaft
* Amendment I (1791)
"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."
[The first ten amendments comprise the Bill of Rights. The first amendment protects religious freedom by prohibiting the establishment of an official or exclusive church or sect. Free speech and free press are protected, although they can be limited for reasons of defamation, obscenity, and certain forms of state censorship, especially during wartime. The freedom of assembly and petition also covers marching, picketing and pamphleteering.]
* inalienable - unverzichtbar, unabdingbar
* ingrained - eingebettet
* inflammatory - aufrührerisch, aufhetzerisch
* imminent - bevorstehend, drohend
* desecrate - schänden, entweihen
* to accommodate - hier: unter einen Hut bringen

1. How do Americans look at their right of free speech in contrast to Europeans?
2. Describe in your own words the two cases from the text which were overturned by the US Supreme Court.
3. Analyse Jack Balkin's interpretation of the First Amendment and say how he differs from how German politicians deal with 'freedom of expression' (e.g. example).
4. 'fixed star', 'the ghosts of the Pilgrim Fathers' and 'marketplace of ideas' are figures of speech. What are the technical terms of these figures and explain what their literal meanings are.
5. Do you personally think that we live in a liberal society where freedom of speech enjoys a high status? Substantiate your opinion by one or two examples.

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