The latest media reports indicate that pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Florida has postponed, but not cancelled, his congregation's planned Qu'ran-burning on the anniversary of September 11th, after a phone call from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and condemnation from leaders worldwide.
Unfortunately, Terry Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church (of "God Hates Fags" infamy) have vowed to carry out the burning if Dove World doesn't do it.
In the meantime, Dove World has had its website taken down by their hosting providers, Interpol has issued a global alert, and some clever folks have created a parody ad mocking Jones and Phelps.
President Obama on Thursday urged Jones to listen to "those better angels", saying that the burning was contrary to American values. But is it really? Even a cursory reading of message boards around the web yields a plethora of angry and hate-filled comments by those supporting the Qu'ran-burning. There seem to be an awful lot of Americans who feel that burning the Qu'ran is revenge for acts of violence carried out by Muslim extremists — that a slap in the face of all Muslims worldwide is a fitting atonement for the acts of a few nutjobs.
Despite the pleas (and in some cases the demands) of world leaders that the American government stop Jones, they're wasting their breath. The authorities won't stop Jones because his actions are protected by the First Amendment, the freedom of speech. In the famous (and incorrectly attributed) words of the French philosopher Voltaire:
"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
This is the basic tenet of American, and indeed Western civilization. It represents everything we stand for, fight for, and strive for. We might find a particular piece of speech detestable, but the right to say it must be defended or the entire system falls apart. Freedom of speech is seen as one of the foundations underpinning an open and fair society, and selective application would undermine the freedom for everyone. It has to be freedom for all speech, no matter how distasteful.
That said, can you think of a more offensive act of free speech than burning another religion's holy book? Go on, I dare you. You won't find one. This is the ultimate and most extreme example of freedom of speech the world has ever seen. And in the end this becomes not so much about free speech as it is about human decency. Yes, we are free to say anything we want. But should we?