Free Speech, Free Worship, Private Property, Facts and Terry Jones

Normally I try to keep this blog focused on explaining economic issues and concepts.  But in the past few days there’s a political issue has arisen that’s literally very close to home for me and I feel the need to speak out.

Last week, Terry Jones and his assistant Warren Sapp of Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida came to Dearborn, Michigan with the announced intent to protest at the Islamic Center of America, a very large mosque in Dearborn. Jones and Sapp are the characters who threatened to hold a bonfire burning hundreds of copies of the Koran last September, igniting worldwide protests. The burning last September was cancelled after the Gainesville, FL fire department refused a burning permit.  At the time Jones and Sapp bowed to pressure and said they promised not to publicly burn the Koran.  They lied.  In March 2011, they held a public “trial” of book and then publicly burned a copy.

Jones and Sapp also announced last month that they would come to Dearborn on April 22, 2011 to protest the “spread of sharia law” in Dearborn. They stated they would come to the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn and burn a Koran. On the day of the scheduled “protest” Jones and Sapp found themselves in court in Dearborn with the prosecutor asking the court for Jones and Sapp to post a “peace bond”. Following a hearing before a jury, the judge ordered a $1 peace bond and ordered Jones and Sapp to stay away from the mosque for 3 years.

The national media has greatly misreported both the facts and the issues in this case. The case is close to home for me because I live in Dearborn. The media have been reporting that this is a pure free speech case and that the prosecutor was trying to keep Jones from protesting or keep Jones from saying his message.  That is simply not the case.  Let me repeat some facts that commentators not familiar with Dearborn don’t tell you.

First, to understand the need for the peace bond or restraining order, it’s necessary to know a little about the physical geography of the site.  Here’s a link to a satellite view Google map of the location where Jones had planned to protest.  Please note, there’s no public property available for assembling a protest at the site.  To hold his planned protest, Jones was threatening to trespass on private property, the mosque itself.  There is no first amendment right to free speech on other people’s private property!  

The only alternative for Jones would have been to block traffic on Altar Road.  Altar Road is a dead-end street with only access at one end. There is no free speech right to block traffic on a public street without at least getting a city parade permit first, which Jones did not do.  In fact, if Jones had implemented his planned protest on the public roadway of Altar Road, he would have blocked access to not only the mosque, but to the five other churches (all Christian) that are located on Altar Road next to the mosque. For all those who claim Jones has a first amendment right to protest and block Altar Road, I ask how does Jones’ first amendment rights trump the first amendment rights of the members of the other churches to worship?  Keep in mind that Jones was threatening to either trespass the mosque or block traffic on Good Friday when those other churches were holding services.  To claim that Jones should have been allowed to hold his protest is to claim that Jones has the right to prevent hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Dearborn residents, both Christian and Muslim, the right to worship as they see fit. 

So it’s not a clear-cut case of freedom of speech as the media would have us believe.  There’s also issues of private property and freedom of worship (another first amendment right).  But the city also had legitimate concerns for public safety.

The city’s concerns for public safety aren’t with the prospect of some crazed Dearborn Muslims rioting in the street over Jones’s presence or the burning of a Koran.  Our community is too peaceful for that.  Indeed, the Mosque was planning alternative peaceful activities to take attention away from Jones.  No, the threat comes from Jones himself and from the crazed outsiders he would attract.  It was only 3 months ago that we in Dearborn were fortunate to narrowly escape a plot to bomb this very same mosque.  A crazed man from California attempted to take a car loaded with explosives and blow up the mosque.  The attempt was only stopped by a quick police response to a tip from an alert Dearborn bartender.  We have recent experience with hate-crazed people coming from out-of-town and trying to blow up the mosque!  Forgive us if we have concerns about another dangerous hate-crazed man from out-of-town bringing guns and/or explosives.

Make no mistake, Jones is a direct threat to public safety. On the night before the planned protest, Jones recklessly discharged a firearm in public. After attending a new interview at TV station on Thursday evening, Jones got in his car and discharged his .40 caliber pistol.  Jones has a concealed carry weapon permit from Florida.  Under reciprocity rules, Michigan recognizes such a permit.  But a concealed carry weapon permit is not a license to discharge the firearm at any time or to not keep the weapon under control.  When approached by police, Jones claimed it was an “accident”.  Either Jones intended to do something else with the gun and lied when confronted by police, or Jones is an idiot who doesn’t keep the safety on his gun and doesn’t have control of it.  This guy was further threatening to trespass at a church (the mosque) the next day.  In Michigan, possession of guns is illegal on church property, even with a concealed carry permit.

Contrary to what Jones and his apologists in the media claim, Jones has not been stopped from protesting in Dearborn. In fact, the Mayor actually welcomed him and asked him to do his protest on public property in front of city hall. What Jones has encountered is a  peace bond.  It’s like a restraining order.  The essence of the order is that Jones not trespass on the mosque property for three years. That’s it.  He’s free to return and protest to his heart’s delight.  But he has to do it on public property.  He is not entitled to trespass on private property to spew hatred at the owners of the property.  He is not free to keep others from worshiping at the church of their choice.  He is not free to threaten the safety of others by violating our gun laws.

I take a back set to no one in my support for free speech and Constitution’s bill of rights.  But this isn’t a case of government trying to restrain political speech of crazy hate-filled man (see also here).  It’s a case of government trying to protect the rights of thousands of citizens to worship as they see fit and to be safe and secure on their own private property.  I know that doesn’t fit the media’s preferred drama, but that’s the facts.