How Should America Handle Extreme Speech?

There's a line of zealots and crusaders who'll take up where Terry Jones left off. How do we handle them?

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Illustration by Gerard Dubois for TIME

Illustration of the Statue of Liberty holding a burning book.

In the end, Pastor Terry Jones did not burn a Koran, and another eternally sad and suddenly bitter 9/11 anniversary came and went. But he'll be back — if not Jones, then the swarms of zealots and charlatans who were inspired by how a preacher with a congregation of about 50 could command the attention of the White House, the Pentagon, the Vatican, Sarah Palin, Angelina Jolie and just about every network, newspaper and blog in the land. It was called a media circus, but it was the kind in which the clowns attacked the children and everyone walking the tightrope looked down and couldn't see any net.

We have argued the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Ill., of journalists to publish government secrets, of racists to burn crosses. We weigh when speech does not deserve protection, like shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater. What about shouting "Fire!" in a crowded world?

Free-speech protections in the U.S. are stronger than in any other place on earth at perhaps any time in history, observes Columbia University president Lee Bollinger, a First Amendment scholar. You can go to jail in Austria for writing a book that denies the Holocaust, be sued for libel in Great Britain for creating a fictional character that someone claims bears too close a resemblance. But as technology evolves, individual rights have global repercussions: thus the warning from General David Petraeus that the price of this particular free speech would be measured in the lives of the Marines who are overseas defending it. Does anyone doubt Jones was looking for a fight when he declared, "Maybe it's time to send a message to radical Islam that we will not tolerate their behavior" — the message coming in a dark cloud of burning Scripture?

Speech intended to incite violence is not protected. But where's the line between intention and mere expectation? And under what circumstances would we accept a President's ordering federal Marshals into a church to prevent a pastor from lighting a fuse, whether the actual explosion occurred around the block or around the world? Since we're locked in one of our seasonal fights over the proper role of government, it would be interesting to see how that debate unspooled: Would that President be doing his duty to protect our troops or usurping powers in precisely the way the Constitution forbids?

Next month, the Supreme Court may offer some guidance when the Justices weigh whether the hatemonger Fred Phelps has the right to disrupt the funerals of fallen soldiers with signs proclaiming that such casualties are evidence that "God hates fags." In the vaudeville of gaudy righteousness, these players tour the news cycle: Phelps vowed he would take up where Jones backed down under pressure from "sissy brats" and seemed peeved that when he burned a Koran two years ago, no one paid attention. In fact, there was a line of people looking to crowd into the center ring once Jones stepped out.

These days, a crusader on a mission doesn't need a multimillion-dollar p.r. budget, just a canny sense of how the media ecosystem works. Last summer, Palin commandeered the health-reform debate with a Facebook post warning that Obamacare would have us begging for mercy in front of "death panels." This summer's storm arrived with a tweet: Jones' planned International Burn a Koran Day initially got more attention overseas, which explains Petraeus' warning. It's not that his speaking out made it a bigger story than it should have been; he spoke out because from where he's sitting, it already was.

So how do we cut off the oxygen without suffocating the rights we prize? The excuse that the press has to "cover the controversy" can become a lazy defense to avoid exercising judgment. The right to speak does not include a right to be heard: editors often choose not to cover idiotic or offensive behavior. Other public figures have a duty as well, to act with restraint: saying that a single provocateur will set back world peace accords him way too much power, like indulging a toddler who's playing with matches.

But it doesn't take a news network to send an image around the world; anyone with a smart phone and a wireless connection can do that. So I find myself hoping that the other messages traveled just as far — that even in the thick of a historic campaign season, leaders from left and right, from politics and religion and culture, rallied in defense of both American values and Islam's Scriptures. That we have fierce fights in this country that are not resolved with violence. And that even the rights we value most are not simple or sure but subject to legal debate, prayerful reflection and the collective judgment of a rowdy public.

This article originally appeared in the September 27, 2010 issue of Time magazine.