By GARY BAUMGARTEN
How far does one’s First Amendment rights stretch in the United States?
If a person’s public demonstrations in Florida cause death in Afghanistan should he be barred from Dearborn?
That’s the question facing a judge in Wayne County Michigan today, after prosecutors filed a motion to bar Pastor Terry Jones from demonstrating outside a Dearborn Islamic center on Good Friday.
Dearborn is a suburb of Detroit, once best known for being the home of Ford Motor Company World Headquarters and the sprawling Ford Rouge Assembly Plant. But it’s now probably better recognized as a community with a substantial Arab population.
Jones is the controversial church pastor who burned a Koran in Florida, then announced it on his website. When word about it spread in Afghanistan, enraged Muslims attacked UN offices, killing 11 people in protest. Even though the UN had nothing at all to do with what Jones did, it was the closest place they could think of where they could find westerners to punish for the Koran burning.
Now Jones wants to take his mission against Islam on the road to Dearborn, where he intends to protest in front of the Islamic center. The prosecutors want an injunction to prevent him from doing so, on the grounds that he will likely spark a riot there.
The Koran burning was, of course, distasteful and irresponsible, given that the U.S. government implored him to not do it because it feared violent responses by some who were offended. Responses that the government told him could put Americans and others in danger.
The lesson was clearly not learned by Jones, who now apparently wants even more fame, or perhaps infamy, by protesting in Dearborn.
While the Koran burning was distasteful, it was clearly protect under the Constitution. So is Jones’ right to protest outside a mosque in Dearborn.
If he is precluded from exercising his First Amendment rights, then who will be next? Nazis who want to march through a predominantly Jewish neighborhood?
That’s not just an academic question. It actually was once raised.
In 1977, in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois, then a community heavily populated with Holocaust survivors, a neo-Nazi group announced a march. When the village government sued to prevent the march, the ACLU stepped in and filed a counter-motion claiming that to enjoin the Nazis from marching would be a violation of their First Amendment rights.
The ACLU prevailed in court, but in the end, the Nazis never marched in Skokie.
The thought wannabe Nazis goose-stepping through the neighborhood of people who lived through the horrors of the Holocaust notwithstanding, the court made the right decision. They had the right, that they elected to not exercise, to do just that.
Similar emotions may be evoked if Jones decides to visit Dearborn. But he too, has First Amendment rights.
If we muzzle Nazis and we muzzle Jones, who knows who may be next to be silenced. Maybe Muslims. Maybe Jews.
Gary Baumgarten is editor of The Jewish Reporter.