Missing First Amendment discussion

Law enforcement were out in force at the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida to keep counter demonstrators separate from the congregation of the Dove Center and it's pastor Terry Jones September 11, 2010. UPI/Mark Wallheiser Photo via Newscom

Forsyth County, Georgia v. Nationalist Movement was a 1992 Supreme Court case dealing with freedom of speech. Forsyth County had this ordinance that mandated permits for private demonstrations. County administrators decided on the fee, which was only up to $1,000. When a group of white nationalists proposed a demonstration against the Martin Luther King, Jr., federal holiday, they were levied a fee of $100. They sued, claiming the ordinance violates their free speech guarantees. The Supreme Court agreed. I thought of that case while reading this CNN story headlined "City plans to bill pastor for security around planned Quran burning.":

The city of Gainesville, Florida, plans to send a bill estimated at more than $180,000 to Pastor Terry Jones for security costs surrounding his controversial threat to burn Qurans on the anniversary of the September, 11, 2001, attacks, a police spokeswoman said Friday.

Police agencies spent more than a month working on security plans to ensure the community surrounding Jones' Dove World Outreach Center -- the planned site of the burning -- was safe, according to Gainesville police spokeswoman Cpl. Tscharna Senn.

Jones also told authorities he received numerous death threats because of the planned protest, which he called off amid increasing pressure from world leaders.

I'm sure many of us initially read a story such as this with a bit of schadenfreude. But that's not why I highlight it here. The CNN version is actually much more substantive than the Associated Press report, and yet it never gets into the big First Amendment questions. Once again, this is a story that is missing some key voices. Just like last week's story about a government employee who was fired over a free speech issue, this story doesn't include any perspective from civil libertarians who are concerned about speech, establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment.

What's more, the story hasn't gotten much coverage at all. Even the British press seemed more interested than folks here.

Some might wish that the media or other actors who fanned the, er, flames of this story be forced to pay part of this fee, but the fact is that forcing anyone to pay for these services raises First Amendment questions that need to be dealt with head-on in a story such as this.

Note this part of the CNN piece:

Jones said Friday that the church was "not aware that we would be billed for security."

"If we had known this in advance, then we would have refused to have security," he said.

Some have accused authorities of over preparing.

I don't think many Constitutional scholars would see a $180,000 bill standing up in a court of law. But the mere fact that this is threatened has a chilling effect on free exercise of speech and religion. How many people might hear about this bill -- and not that it's later thrown out -- and decide that the government might punish their anti-war rally or pro-life vigil or any other event? Imagine if congregations involved in the Civil Rights struggle were billed for the dogs and water hoses the law enforcement brought out on them?

Now, I reread the Forsyth case when writing this and was struck by how even the dissenting opinion in that case doesn't support the Gainesville law enforcement authorities. The dissenters basically said they didn't sign on to the majority opinion because it answered questions the lower courts weren't asking -- but that on the narrow question of whether a $100 fee for a parade permit was unconstitutional, they thought precedent said such a nominal fee was fine. But even they wrote that imposing fees based on opposition crowds would be wrong.

You always have to pay attention to the First Amendment cases of religious and political groups with whom you disagree because the precedent set will soon affect other groups, too. This is just such a case. I didn't understand the media frenzy surrounding the proposed Koran-burning, but neither can I understand the relative lack of coverage on this issue or the failure to look at the serious First Amendment issues in play.

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