There’s a certain appeal to watching the walking Molotov cocktail that is The Rev. Terry Jones get metaphorically extinguished, but the satisfaction quickly fades when you realize that even people with such extreme views have the right to their speech.

And there are serious questions about whether Jones’ arrest Wednesday, rather than being a positive step by law enforcement to defuse a volatile situation, in reality is just another example of an overreaching prosecution meant to stifle free speech.

Jones is the Gainesville, Fla.-based preacher whose previous public displays of burning copies of the Quran led to riots and killings in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Here in the U.S., his virulent anti-Muslim views are fringe, at best, but overseas he is seen as an agent provocateur, and an exemplar of U.S. views toward Islam.

On Wednesday, Jones and an assistant pastor were in a truck towing 2,998 kerosene-soaked Qurans — one for each 9/11 terror attack victim — in a large grill on a trailer. The plan was to burn the religious books to mark the 12th anniversary of the hijacked-plane attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the fourth flight that was force-crashed into a Pennsylvania farm field.

As the truck and trailer moved down a state highway, Polk County sheriff’s deputies pulled the truck over, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Deputies said Jones was riding in a pickup truck that was towing a smoker and trailer filled with kerosene-soaked Qurans. He also had extra bottles of kerosene inside the truck bed.

According to Jones’ website, he planned to burn 2,998 Qurans in the Tampa Bay area on Wednesday. He was arrested along with Associate Pastor Marvin Sapp.

Sapp’s pickup truck was seized. He also was charged with unlawfully transporting fuel and was cited for improper lighting on the trailer.

“My detectives had many conversations with Terry Jones prior to today,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said Wednesday. “He was told he was welcome to come to Polk County and express his First Amendment rights. However, if he violated the law, he would absolutely be arrested and placed in the county jail.

“On Sept. 11, he arrived in Polk County, violated the law, and our detectives arrested him and booked him into the county jail just as he was informed.”

Jones also was charged with a second-degree misdemeanor for allegedly carrying a gun for which he says he has a permit. But the illegal-transport charges are the big ones, carrying up to 40 years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

But if the cops were effectively lying in wait for Jones, some experts say there could be significant First Amendment implications, according to U..S. News & World report.

“The arrest raises an obvious concern over free speech if it was a pretext for stopping the unpopular demonstration,” George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, who personally disapproves of Jones’ actions, told U.S. News.

“The soaking of the books before the trip does raise an obvious fire concern, though I am not sure how it fits the definition of transporting fuel,” Turley said. “The First Amendment does not give Jones an exception to municipal codes or permit requirements that are imposed without discrimination on all citizens, [but] I imagine that many people convey wood and combustible material to tailgate parties and picnics.”

In Turley’s judgment, “if this is the first such arrest [for transporting combustible material], it raises questions of selective prosecution.”

As objectionable as Jones’ views might be, defenders of free speech should be just as concerned about his rights as those of the protesters routinely hauled out of the Wisconsin State Capitol for singing. The issue here is the muzzle applied, not the nature of the speech that is silenced.

—Posted by Scott Martelle.


If you're reading this, you probably already know that non-profit, independent journalism is under threat worldwide. Independent news sites are overshadowed by larger heavily funded mainstream media that inundate us with hype and noise that barely scratch the surface. We believe that our readers deserve to know the full story. Truthdig writers bravely dig beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that tells you what’s really happening and who’s rolling up their sleeves to do something about it.

Like you, we believe a well-informed public that doesn’t have blind faith in the status quo can help change the world. Your contribution of as little as $5 monthly or $35 annually will make you a groundbreaking member and lays the foundation of our work.