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.

Print Friendly

  • dalea

    AIR from events I have been involved in, the police etc. had a no cost level of security and a cost for additional levels. If we requested more police than the police felt necessary, we were obligated to pay for them. It was all very upfront and brought up when we paid for the parade permit, which included police and clean up. Which does not seem to be the case here. Springing a bill for 180,000 does not seem a good way to run things.

    If the First Amendment obliges cities to provide services gratis, who should pay for them? Would requiring groups to pay for cleaning up the public places they use also infringe on the First Amendment? Interesting question.

  • Jerry

    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.

    That’s a corollary of the Golden Rule. It’s easy to forget that principle, for example, when you’re yelling for an “up or down vote” on judge nominations as the Republicans did and then sequester a record number when President Obama nominates them. But, to be fair, many on both sides of the political spectrum are all up in arms when their own ox gets gored but are perfectly happy to cheer the goring of their foes. But as you point out, that’s a very dangerous thing to do.

    From the media perspective: Given that the media mostly ignored Constitution Day, I’m not surprised your valid point was ignored. Reporters tend to get very annoyed when their rights are infringed upon but sadly sometimes don’t notice when other’s rights are on the line.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The problem is the pastor did not request the security, the city decided to impose it.

    Basing security cost of the likelihood of opposition is anathema to free speech. A huge charge like $180,000 is truly repressive.

    On the other hand, the media could give us a huge story on how college campuses all over the country have sought to shut down unpopular groups through the mechanism of security costs tied to likelihood of opposition expression.

  • dalea

    Mollie says:

    …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.

    Is the opposite of forcing ‘anyone’ to pay, a situation where these bills are never paid? I suspect that you want payment to come out of general tax revenues. Which raises even more issues as these dollars must come from already budgeted dollars: ie they take funds from projects which then must reduce expenditures on already agreed upon projects. The amount looks to be equal to employing 3 teachers, policemen or fire fighters. Does religious freedom require the taxpayers to pay for services used by religious groups at the expense of the services selected by elected officials? Is religious freedom an endless blank check drawn on the taxpayers?

    I raise this based on some experiences. Where I live, artists frequently film on city streets. And pay hefty fees and police salaries to do so. Is this a restriction on artistic freedom, which is protected by the First Amendment.

    Several times, religious groups I have been part of have used public spaces for rituals. And we have been required to post fire bonds to cover any damages we might cause. And in very dry times, we have been forbidden to have fires or candles as a safety precaution. Is this a violation of religious freedom?

    Mollie, I really am curious how you think the expenses incurred by the City of Gainsville regard the Quran burning should be paid. And where the money is to come from.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    It doesn’t really matter what I think about the issue (and believe me, my quasi-anarchistic views would go over like a lead balloon among most people) — it just matters that the law is applied evenly.

    I think the Supreme Court has been pretty clear that even nominal fees for law enforcement are verboten. And that case I cited above was over a $100 fee. A $180,000 fee is just not going to pass muster in a court of law, particularly when the group didn’t request any law enforcement.

    There has already been some criticism that the police overreacted to the incident — something I know nothing about — but that was mentioned in this story.

    The point isn’t what you or I think about whether law enforcement should be privately or publicly financed — it’s just that this is an important discussion for the media to include.

    I mean, just including the perspective of opposing attorneys or groups, such as yours, who have had to pay for some permits and what not — that would make a much better story.

    I’m confused, again, why we had non-stop coverage of the non-existent Koran burn but then have such paltry offerings when it comes to this side of the story. Just bizarre.

  • T Stanton


    I agree that the MSM is missing the First Amendment discussion here. On the practical side – I don’t think there is a lot of widely practiced procedure with respect to who ought to pay in the event of needed public security. Here in CA, lots of churches pay for police presence on Sunday – if for nothing more than traffic management (often as a service to the local community).

    However, when it comes to the First Amendment I think the MSM is falling victim to their usual bias: They look at an issue and see politics but are blind to religion.

    I’d love to see a PEW pole on how general public see “free speech” relative to some political and religious test cases.

  • dalea


    I have followed the issue for years and can not recall ever seeing this brought up. The idea that political and religious groups can not be charged the costs they cause to the government is really mindboggling.

    In LA, Gay Pride charges a $20 admission fee to cover the rental on the park, cleanup and police protection. Pagan groups have lots of outdoor events in public parks. We always comply with park regulations and pay fees. Amazing if we did not have to.

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    Again, delea, the point is not that a fee was charged. It was the amount of the fee and after the fact. This ends up sounding less like needed expenses and more like punishment. Notice the difference between “charged” and “charges.”