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First amendments first

Those of you who bridle when this blog touches on political topics, avert your gaze—though this may be the last time for a while that I address First Amendment issues, because ignorance on the subject, some of it willful, is too vast for my frail power to educate.

I understand that a Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who operates a radio program that I don’t listen to, is leaving the air because people objected to her use of racial slurs and she wants to be free to exercise her First Amendment rights. I thought that that was what she was doing in the first place. She is free to say as many objectionable things as she likes, as often as she chooses. And people who find her offensive are free to criticize her, exercising their First Amendment rights.

Odd that this concept should prove to be so difficult to grasp. Odd that it should be so equally difficult for people to grasp the point about that proposed Islamic center in Manhattan.

It’s clear, or should be, that the First Amendment makes other people’s religious beliefs Not Your Business. In comments on this blog and elsewhere, people have catalogued the things they don’t like about Islam, but all of that is just irrelevant. If the people proposing the Islamic center in Manhattan conform to municipal zoning regulations and do not violate the criminal code, then they are beyond the reach of any governmental action, or, for that matter, public opinion. Your assent is not required.

Take an example: No doubt there are fellow Christians who reject Darwinian evolution and Copernican cosmology and, for all I know, Arabic numerals (invented by Muslims, you know). I deplore these beliefs and fear that these people are not fitting their children for participation in the world, but it is their right to think thus, and set up their churches and madrassas, and it would be tyranny to compel them otherwise. It is not my business, or yours, to police other people’s religious beliefs.

In yesterday’s post “Not stupid, just afraid,” I added a comment quoting Theodore Olson, a Republican, the former solicitor general in George W. Bush’s administration, and the husband of a victim of the September 11 attacks. I repeat it here:

"Well, it may not make me popular with some people, but I think probably the president was right about this. I do believe that people of all religions have a right to build edifices, or structures, or places of religious worship or study, where the community allows them to do it under zoning laws and that sort of thing, and that we don't want to turn an act of hate against us by extremists into an act of intolerance for people of religious faith. And I don't think it should be a political issue. It shouldn't be a Republican or Democratic issue, either. I believe Governor Christie from New Jersey said it well — that this should not be in that political, partisan marketplace."

It’s amusing to see how people switch sides. On questions about the Second Amendment, liberals veer into the strict-construction, original-intent camp, because in 1787 the right to bear arms was clearly linked to participation in a civilian militia. The Framers, having read their Roman history, were leery of standing armies and in fact virtually dissolved the army after the Revolution.

On the question of the Islamic center in Manhattan, opponents are suddenly unable to understand what the plain intent of the First Amendment, to make the United States a secular polity in which government keeps its hands off religious belief and practice. As always, we see people reaching for the arguments that support their previously determined conclusions, without much regard for consistency of principle.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:38 AM | | Comments (21)


Very well said, sir.

For most of my life, I have had a conservative bent, no doubt reinforced by a 20-year career as an Air Force officer. But increasingly, I am dismayed by the words and actions of so-called supporters of the Constitution.

It saddens me to think they might actually prefer the repeal of the entire document, than have to continue to live under its principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Incidentally, if there is a reasonable definition of "moderate," I probably fit it these days.

I do not disagree with you, or what Theodore Olsen said. The Imam and any of his followers are very much in the right with their want to build where they are planning.

However, their doing so does do a few things that rightly bring it into the public and political arena.

Islam claims to be the "Religion of Peace", however, the building of this center does not promote peace, but rather the opposite. Due to the location, it is very insensitive of them to build there, and their building in that location will cause anger amongst many people due to the religion's link to the 9/11 attacks. As a result of the high level of emotions, there is a high possibility that this anger could result in harm to citizens and non-citizens alike.

The First Amendment exists to protect our right to speak freely, however, that right may be revoked if it infringes on someone else's right to speak freely, or if the speech/action in question can be said to be a direct cause of violence.

I find it hard to believe Dr. Laura cares what people think about her use of racial slurs. I'd bet her leaving has more to do with her carriers objecting to her driving away listenership. Of course, she'll frame it as a 1st amendment thing . . . but it's really a money thing. It's her carriers saying, "Sure, you can say any offensive drivel you want. As long as it attracts listeners, you're welcome to say it on my radio station. However, once you start to drive listeners away, you are no longer welcome here."

It's scarcely relevant to the subject, but so-called Arabic numbers were, in fact, invented in India 1500 years before there was any such thing as Islam.

Ah, I didn't realize that I was Congress, and therefore should shut up about other people's religious beliefs, especially when they involve flying planes into buildings. Thank you for clarifying that.

So, what am I missing? The First Amendment enjoins Congress and the states from enacting certain laws. It says nothing about what people may say about anything, including about religion.

And yet, you say, "It’s clear, or should be, that the First Amendment makes other people’s religious beliefs Not Your Business."

So, what's the connection?

A key facet about the First Amendment that is poorly understood by many is that it does not make it OK for anyone to express themselves without criticism. It merely guarantees that the government can't prosecute you.

So, yes, one can use racial slurs or burn a flag to one's heart's desire. But it is not a violation of their First Amendment rights when other people use their First Amendment rights to loudly object. The only right everyone has (absent complicating factors) is to not be thrown in jail. That is all the Framers intended.

The Chicago Tribune appears to share my understanding of the situation:,0,2518101.story

And thank you so very much for implying that a difference of opinion on the First Amendment - and very likely other topics - is by extension ignorance, willful or otherwise. Insulting your audience is hardly a guarantee of retaining readers or luring new ones. I have thicker skin and a better sense of humor about myself than many people I know or know of. But purposely insulting others, presumably to make your"frail" self look smarter, or more experienced in any area save editing, is truly arrogant. There is absolutely nothing in Amendment Primo that says that the religious views of others are none of my business. It's none of the government's business unless a family who worships snakes moves in next door and the cobras get loose in the neighborhood. It then becomes the business of whatever local agency rounds up cobras. I've read the First Amendment too, and as neither of us is a constitutional lawyer, who is to say whose opinion is the more valid? I'm delighted to see you go alla Vacanza on political topics for a time. I can get better sermons by reading John Donne.

I enjoy your blog when it deals with language and composition. Unfortunately, this blog shows that ignorance of the Constitution is not restricted to your readers. It is also unfortunate that you frame the issue as one legality (which it is not, it is about respect) and refer to the proposed facility as an Islamic Center rather than a mosque.

Since Theodore Olson is a constitutional lawyer, it seems a pity that Patricia ignored his remarks, which might also have indicated to John20723 that "respect" cuts both ways.

I refer to the proposed structure as an Islamic center rather than a mosque because the plans include, in addition to space for prayer, a swimming pool, a concert auditorium, a gymnasium, a child-care facility, a library, a culinary school, and a restaurant.

If the Y in your neighborhood had a chapel as well as a swimming pool, would you call it a cathedral?

And what's with the YMCA now calling itself just the Y? Has the Lefty Cabal taken over to carry out its sinister plots against Christianity and men?

Bill Peschel, you can say whatever you like about other people's religions.

It's none of your business in the sense that you can't make them act differently when they are obeying the law.

(My captcha has Greek in it now. Seriously.)

Simply by quoting a real expert on a topic doesn't make you one. I think Mr Olsen quite possibly has lost his reason - but that doesn't mean he hasn't a right to his informed opinion. Yours is merely - predictable. The First doesn't just apply to people in the news business. It applies to all of us, and it still isn't absolute. Diagreeing with people who agree with you doesn't make us bigots, racists or the other lables so easily tossed about by the Left. I see that the Libyan who blew up PanAM over Lockerbie is back in the news: I think he ought to be dying in that Scottish prison, and that the Scots and/or the Brits made a horrible decision to release him. I guess I am also a bigot against Scotland and Great Britain. (I admit I think Mary, Elizabeth I's cousin, was a dreadful monarch, but there you are.)

Bless my soul, Ron Paul and I are in agreement on this issue:

And what's with the YMCA now calling itself just the Y? Has the Lefty Cabal taken over to carry out its sinister plots against Christianity and men?

I figured because it's not just for Men??

Exactly, Eve. Almost 30 years ago I visited a YMCA and saw a poster that went roughly like this:

The YMCA, it's not just for

Young people, it's not just for

Men, it's not just for Christians. It's for

All people.

I wonder what George Williams would think.

Actually Tim, I jumped on that response before I read the last couple of words in John's remark. (Although I did copy them.) Never let it be said that I let a few words come between me and my opinion. In my own defense on this, my office is populated by people who seem to be convinced that (what I think are) pretty amazing things are attempts to undermine Christianity. When I semi-read John's remark, knowing that it was way out of character for him, I still felt as though I was, once more, underseige from the paranoids.

Is it just me, or do many of those who are carrying on about christian this and god that (and I'm deliberately not capitalizing either because I don't think there is any deity in this behavior) have never before shown any sign of spirituality devinely-driven behavior? Is it just these people in this place?

Good points, Eve. Whether it's faith or language or economics or whatever, it seems that those who speak most stridently are often the least worth attending.

If a cultural center, with mosque near Ground Zero is bad, then why not ban all Muslims from Downtown N.Y.??

Or-require them to wear yellow crescents.?Do some want to go that far.?

How about disguising it as a fashion shop:Kate Mosque?

Or- as a Disney retail outlet:Mickey Mosque?

This is getting ridiculous---with Newt,Palin,Beck & crowd using fear,hate, and demagoguery to score political points --------

I shudder to think what "Dr. Laura" thinks about the M word....I already know what she thinks about the N word.

No, you don't know what Dr Schlessinger thinks about the word "N....." If you listened to her whole conversation, you know what she thinks of other people's use of it.

The post from Jack sums it up...

$$$$ and the N Word= NO MORE LAURA

Bottom line is profit for the advertiser's...

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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