Quran Burning: "Ugly" But Free Speech Says ACLU

Koran, Qur'an, Muslim Holy Book
Koran, Qur'an, Muslim Holy Book CBS/iStockPhoto

As Reverend Terry Jones prepares to strike a match and send a Quran up in smoke, the ACLU finds itself in a strange position: defending both sides in the debate. "We are in a unique position to say he has the right to burn the Quran, and then walk across the street and protest him for doing it," says Brandon Hensler, spokesman for the ACLU of Florida. "There are two competing interests and they're not mutually exclusive."

When asked about the national security aspect of burning the Quran--meaning the inflammatory act could put troops in harm's way--Hensler told CBS News: "we're not insensitive to endangering troops abroad... but you can't censor speech based on hypothetical outcome. The Reverend clearly has the free speech right to burn a Quran, as disgusting and vile an act as it is. It's everybody else's right to exercise their free speech against him. You can't pick and choose who has constitutional rights."

The ACLU has also been communicating with the Arabic news network Al-Jazeera which is covering the Quran burning story. Many in Al-Jazeera's audience, Hensler says, do not understand a nation such as ours whereby free speech is protected. "That's what makes it so special here."

It's not the first time the ACLU has defended opposing sides in a controversy. For example, the Florida branch of the civil rights group defended organizers of a gay pride parade in St. Petersburg while defending anti-gay protesters at the same event.

Hensler is en route to Gainesville, Florida to participate tomorrow in an interfaith event at a Methodist church promoting tolerance. "This is as naked as the Bill of Rights and Constitution get. It's an uncomfortable, ugly display but it's his right to do it."

  • Sharyl Attkisson
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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.