Penn Jillete, Miss Tennessee and the First Amendment

I am a fan of Penn and Teller. I don’t always agree with their socio-political views, but I have a respect for them. When I read about Penn Jillete’s comments about Miss Tennessee’s views on Quran burning, I had to think a moment. Miss Tennessee, in answering a question regarding whether Quran burning should be afforded the same protections under the Constitution as flag burning, said, apparently, that it should not; People should not be allowed to burn Qurans, or American Flags for that matter.

In further defense of her statement and in reply to Penn’s criticism, she said, “I understand and am grateful for the protections we enjoy under the U.S. Constitution, but the First Amendment does not extend to all types of speech. Due to my strong Christian beliefs, and my respect for the convictions of other, I personally feel that burning sacred texts goes too far.”

To me this represents a subtle but important disconnect people have in regards to  the concepts of freedom and respecting other people’s beliefs.

Ashley Durham, the Miss Tennessee mentioned above, has some accurate points. The First Amendment does not protect all speech. It does not protect lying to cause harm. It does protect any speech or expression regarding opinion and does protect all speech or other expression meant to provoke thought and all speech and expression making a political statement.

Flag burning in protest is protected expression.

Quran burning, symbolising one’s opinion of Islam, is protected. Quran burning to invoke a violent response is not. Prooving the thoughts behind the burning is about impossible.

Now, being protected by the Constitution and being the right thing to do are not the same thing. Just because we can legally do something does not mean we should. And just because we shouldn’t do something doesn’t mean there should be a law to tell us not to.

Miss Durham answered the question by trying to impose her personal beliefs onto what should be Constitutional Law. I respect her beliefs; they are not dissimilar to my own in regards to whether someone should burn a flag, Bible or Quran. The difference is in whether I would impose my beliefs on everyone in the country or whether I would allow for people to believe differently. I honestly don’t know if Miss Durham meant to say that it should be illegal when she was saying that people shouldn’t do it, but it certainly came out as if she thought it should not be protected speech under the First Amendment.

Penn was just boisterous enough to mention that he was glad to help prevent her from winning due to her opinion that Quran burning should be not be protected speech. He is within his rights as a judge to act on his opinion that her opinion would make her less qualified and he should have been free to choose not to vote for her as Miss USA. The Miss USA competition knew what they were getting when they asked him to judge, I’m sure.

To me, it’s okay for people to have opinions about what the government should do and what they shouldn’t do. I am of the opinion that many of those opinions are flat wrong. I might not want to hang out with these people too often and I might even try to make them see the errors in their opinions. (The biggest and most common error I see are people who believe their opinions are facts.) Still, people have the freedom to have wrong opinions and even to state wrong opinions. Freedom, more than anything, is the freedom to be wrong. If everyone always did the right thing, there would be no such word as freedom. If everyone always did the right thing, we’d be machines and the world would be really boring — incredibly efficient at being really boring.

Being particularly lazy and rushed to fit blogging into a lunch break, I cite only one source for the quotes and facts mentioned above: Oskar Garcia’s AP article, “Penn Jillette says he’s glad Tenn. lost Miss USA”


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