Hey AP: Does anyone know why Terry Jones was arrested?

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If you have spent much time studying First Amendment cases you will know that many of the most important cases center on the activities of people with whom no one in his or her right mind would want to have dinner. The bottom line: It’s easy to protect the free-speech rights of nice people. It’s harder to take a legal stand in defense of Nazis who want to assembly and march through a Chicago suburb that is home to hundreds of Holocaust survivors.

This brings us, logically enough, to the Rev. Terry Jones of Florida, the guy who keeps trying to draw media attention by creating bonfires using copies of the Quran, despite appeals from U.S. military leaders that symbolic speech of this kind could lead to the deaths of us troops and other personnel based in tense Islamic cultures.

I would add that his actions could also, when twisted, be used to justify the slaughter of Christians in places like Syria, Egypt and Iraq, not that this is an important a story right now or anything. Just saying.

No one here wants to stand up and cheer for Jones. However, the Associated Press ran a truly disturbing story from earlier this week about his latest brush with the law. Read the top of this story — care of a link to The Washington Post — carefully:

MULBERRY, Fla. – Law enforcement arrested a Florida pastor … as he drove to a park to light nearly 3,000 Qurans on fire to protest the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Polk County sheriff’s deputies arrested Pastor Terry Jones, 61, and his associate pastor, Marvin Sapp Jr., 34, on felony charges as he drove a pickup truck towing a large barbecue-style grill filled with Qurans soaked in kerosene. He had said he was heading to a nearby park to burn 2,998 Qurans — one for every victim of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Sheriff’s officials said they would hold a news conference later Wednesday to discuss specific charges.

Mulberry’s mayor, along with area elected officials, a sheriff’s deputy and several Polk County residents have talked about the need to express love and tolerance for all faiths on Sept. 11.

OK, did you notice any important, rather basic, information missing from that part of the story?

Let’s read on, looking at some key factual material.

Jones … first gained attention in 2010 when he planned to burn a Quran on 9/11, although he eventually called it off. His congregation did burn the Muslim holy book in March 2011 and last year he promoted an anti-Muslim film. All three incidents sparked violence in the Middle East and Afghanistan. …

An Egyptian court convicted Jones, along with seven Egyptian Coptic Christians in absentia, sentencing them to death on charges linked to the film. The ruling was seen as largely symbolic because Jones and the other defendants live outside of Egypt.

Just last week, a federal judge in Michigan issued a summary judgment in favor of Jones and his organization, Stand Up America Now, against the city of Dearborn for requiring Jones and his organization to sign a city-issued agreement in order to speak on public property in front of a Dearborn mosque in 2012.

Nope, still missing a key fact about this event which pivots — hint, hint — around his First Amendment rights.

Maybe the fact will surface at the end of the piece? Let’s check.

Mike Ghouse, who has organized a 9/11 prayer service in his home state of Texas for nine years, brought his event to Mulberry because of Jones’ planned Quran burning. He initially had planned to hold the service in Texas but teamed with a group of Mulberry residents who had organized an anti-Jones Facebook page.

“Everyone has a right to believe what they believe,” said Ghouse, adding that it was Jones’ right as an American to express himself. Others said that while Jones was free to say or do whatever he wanted, the people of Mulberry didn’t want the world to think that the residents condone or agree with Jones’ views.

“We don’t buy what Jones is selling,” said Polk County resident Butch Rahman.

Nope, readers still have no idea about the answer to a rather basic question: Why was Jones arrested? If Jones and his associate pastor were hit with felony charges, what were the alleged crimes that led to these charges and to their arrest?

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not asking about the wisdom of his Quran-burning obsession. In this case, I am not even asking GetReligion readers to spend much time pondering the First Amendment rights of Jones and his troubled flock.

No, I am asking a journalistic question, one that certainly should have been answered in this news story. What law did they violate? Yes, I know Jones has had run-ins with the law on other dark issues, to say the least. But this time his associate pastor was arrested, as well.

Illegal grilling in a public picnic area? If the charge was creating a disturbance, then that would be an interesting issue to settle in court (in light of other disturbing and even law-breaking public demonstrations that take place in our nation from time to time). Did he violate some unwritten blasphemy code?

Why doesn’t this story tell us why Jones was arrested? Is it assumed that his actions are so beyond the pale that this is not necessary?

Now, over at The Daily Caller, the following information was provided, not that it answered many of the relevant legal questions:

Jones was arrested on an unspecified felony charge, which has been reported as “transporting hazardous materials,” after he was pulled over in Polk County with nearly 3,000 kerosene-soaked copies of the Koran in the bed of his pickup truck, which was towing a barbecue grill. …

The Polk County Sherriff’s office could not immediately be reached after normal business hours for clarification on Jones’ felony charge.

That’s a start.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • tmatt

    A comment over on our Facebook page:

    Phil wrote: “IIRC, he was arrested for
    illegally transporting flammable liquids. The 3000 Korans were soaked
    in kerosene and transported in a grill being towed by the truck. He
    also didn’t have a permit and the area is under a burn ban.

    http://www.theatlanticwire.com/national/2013/09/pastor-terry-jones-arrested-truck-full-kerosene-soaked-korans/69322/

    • tmatt

      Good to know, but this does not address the very strange hole in the AP story.

    • Hal Duston

      Here’s another newspaper carrying what appears to be the same AP article. It is linked to by the article in The Atlantic you linked above and it does mention the actual charges. So either the Washington Post edited them out or the AP story or the Miami Herald edited them in. Is that how it works??

      http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/09/11/3621053/fla-pastor-arrested-before-he.html

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Hey, when police are arresting an idiot like Terry Jones, what charges do they need? He can be arrested just for idiocy. (end sarcasm)

    • Steve

      Why did the chicken cross the road?

  • John Pack Lambert

    I am very glad that Dearborn has been called out of line for their treatment of Terry Jones. Dearborn consistently shows they do not really think they are part of the US and believe they can silence some voices denouncing Islam.
    I have to say I wonder if many of those voices actually are expressed in a way they are likely to be heard, but with school officials having denounced students that have converted to Christianity, Dearborn has a major problem with not understanding that in the US religion is a personal matter that the state should not discorage changes in, and that people can insult any religion and descecrate its most sacred relics.

  • John Pack Lambert

    This arrest still looks to me to be on cooked up charges by people who are willing to selectively apply the low to stop those they disagree with.

  • Kodos

    I believe the news stories about Jones being arrested three years ago for possession of child pornography were based on an internet hoax. News outlets like NBC and CNN repeated this information without checking its veracity. And as far as I know they never retracted or corrected their reports after the source of the information was traced to a blog. Thus an urban legend was born….


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