A Misuse Of Freedom

By Kerry Healey

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Last week, three iconic American freedoms — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press — collided in a nightmare scenario that could well still lead to the loss of American lives.

The self-styled Rev. Terry Jones' irresponsible threat to burn copies of the Quran at his tiny church in Jacksonville, Fla. was withdrawn at the eleventh hour after pleas from General Petraeus and the White House. But Jones’ selfish stunt has inflicted real damage to America's reputation for religious tolerance, and makes achieving peace in Afghanistan even tougher.

Neither should we allow one American to twist our freedoms into a Gordian knot that prevents us from showing America's true values to the world.

America must never be so intimidated by the threat of terrorism that we curtail our fundamental freedoms.  But neither should we allow one American to twist our freedoms into a Gordian knot that prevents us from showing America's true values to the world.

Several things went wrong with the handling of the Jones case.  Let's consider freedom of speech.  Jones certainly has a right to express unpopular views if they are true.  But now it seems that the Quran-burning threat was merely a dangerous publicity-seeking ruse.

When Jones’ false threat spawned violent demonstrations in five countries, it crossed Oliver Wendell Holmes's famous line of falsely shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater.  Jones’ speech may not have deserved constitutional protection after all.

Jones also fundamentally misused freedom of religion. 

Freedom from religious persecution is the bedrock on which this nation was founded.  But the exercise of religious freedom comes with a duty that requires each religion to see to their own knitting.  Tolerance is required, not just from the government but from ordinary Americans like Mr. Jones.  He showed none.

The most serious questions in the Jones case are reserved for the media.  Jones has a right to express his views, but no inherent right to be heard by people in Indonesia and Afghanistan.  The media chose to blitz the obscure Jones’ ravings around the world as if he were an American leader or a celebrity spokesperson for religious hatred.

In truth, Jones deserved no attention beyond a footnote in the Jacksonville Times.   Thanks to the media, one bigoted man and his 50 parishioners were allowed to become the face of 300 million Americans to the Muslim world.  The media needs to question whether creating incendiary fodder for talk radio justifies the magnification of an ant like Jones, tarnishing America's reputation and risking our soldier’s lives. 

Freedom of the press exists to preserve democracy, not to entertain us.

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