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Graffiti is illegal; anti-Islam remarks are not

By Asma Uddin, Special to CNN
  • Asma Uddin: We must guard against viewing Islam as the force behind bin Laden's terror
  • But we can't punish those who exercise free speech, no matter how offensive, she says
  • Uddin: Quran-burning Terry Jones spent brief time in jail over planned mosque protest
  • We can criticize Jones' vilification of Islam but protect his constitutional rights, she writes

Editor's note: Asma T. Uddin is the founder and editor-in-chief of She is also a legal fellow with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and an international law attorney with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty , a nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest law firm based in Washington, D.C.

(CNN) -- Just as patriotism was renewed while Americans mourned on 9/11, it flourishes again less than 10 years later as we celebrate the long-awaited justice finally served by Osama bin Laden's death.

But while we celebrate, we must guard against condemning Islam as the force behind bin Laden's reign of terror. As President Obama stated in his speech announcing the mass murderer's death, we are not at war with Islam. Bin Laden and his extremist cohorts have wreaked havoc on Muslims and non-Muslims alike, across the globe.

Unfortunately, the false association of Muslims and terrorism came up just hours after the brutal terrorist leader's life ended. Muslims in Portland, Maine, awoke that Monday morning to find their place of worship defiled with anti-Islam graffiti. The gray stone walls of the recently established Maine Muslims Community Center were desecrated with the spray-painted phrases "Osama today, Islam tomorrow" and "Long live the West."

Statements such as those express a notion that Islam is inextricably linked to terrorism. This kind of thinking must be called out for what it is. Terrorists are at war with freedom, and thus all of humanity, not just Western non-Muslims. Terrorism is not the expression of any particular religion. Bin Laden sought to crush freedom wherever he found it.

Defacing a building is unlawful. But, on their own, offensive statements against Muslims aren't. We can't confuse unlawful acts such as painting graffiti on private property with making statements against Muslims. Those are protected by the right to free speech, as offensive as those thoughts or actions might be.

Just last month, Florida pastor Terry Jones and his compatriot Wayne Sapp spent time in a Michigan jail when they refused to pay a $1 bond after a jury determined that their planned peaceful demonstration across from a Muslim mosque would lead to violence. Jones, who made international news in March when he led a Quran-burning ceremony in Florida that sparked mass rioting and killings in Afghanistan, planned to host this Michigan protest on Good Friday. His aim was to admonish Muslims not to impose Sharia law on America.

Jones' behavior and claims only vilify Islam as the source of terrorism. But his claims are protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution nonetheless. In this situation, the law was abused in order to silence Jones' speech, though the ostensible purpose was to protect him from violence.

The law should not have been used to "protect" Jones by robbing him of his constitutionally protected rights. Jones' speech may provoke people to commit violence -- directed at him -- but the law does not prohibit speech for this reason. There is no "heckler's veto."

Instead, the law may only limit speech that is directed at inciting imminent violence against another person or group of people. Rather than penalizing the speaker in order to prevent violence, the law compels potentially violent actors to regulate their own behavior -- even in the face of insults or other provocation. After all, violence is far more effectively controlled if states punish criminal acts.

We should feel free to criticize people like Jones, but we should by no means attempt to twist the law in order to silence them. As we continue to celebrate and thank those who have risked their lives to secure our freedoms from enemies abroad, we should remember to protect these freedoms ourselves.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Asma Uddin.