Some First Amendment experts believe the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff crossed a line by asking a Florida pastor to withdraw his support for an anti-Islam film that may have played a role in inciting protesters who attacked U.S. diplomatic posts in Libya and Egypt.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, spoke with Pastor Terry Jones by telephone Wednesday morning to voice his concerns.
“Gen. Dempsey expressed his concern over the nature of the film and the tensions it would enflame and the violence it would case,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan told Fox News. “He asked Pastor Jones to withdraw his support for the film.”
Lapan said the phone call was cordial but said Jones would not commit to pulling his support.
Clay Calvert, director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida, told Fox News the chairman’s behavior was heavy-handed.
“The fact that a very, very powerful government official is reaching down to a pastor in Florida asking him to censor his own speech – in the greater good – supposedly preventing further violence upon American officials abroad” is an issue, he said.
“Any time the government is involved we have a First Amendment question, especially when the government is asking an individual to stifle or to stop his speech,” Calvert said.
Jones has been on the radar of the Pentagon in the past – when he threatened to burn copies of the Koran.
But no matter how offensive his speech may be, Calvert said the pastor’s speech is still protected.
“The First Amendment protects offensive and disagreeable speech, especially about political matters,” he said. “That’s why we have the First Amendment. It does not only protect happy speech or good speech or positive speech. The First Amendment is there for the minority viewpoint.”
Hiram Sasser, with Liberty Institute, also had concerns with how the chairman of the Joint Chiefs conducted himself.
“Here we have the third most powerful person in the Armed Forces calling a citizen and asking them to take an action in regards to squelching their free speech,” he told Fox News. “That’s pretty drastic and extreme. I would interpret that as something more than a ‘polite ask from my neighbor.’”
But Col. Lapan said what the general did was entirely reasonable.
“It was just asking Pastor Jones to reconsider,” he said. “He certainly is free to make his own choices.”
Col. Lapan said the chairman wanted to make the pastor “aware of the chairman’s concern of what his promotion of this film might do to US service members.”
The Pentagon did allow that some people might accuse them of overstepping their bounds.
“I would remind them to think about the lives of US service members that are already at risk out there and not having something else added to their plates because of this film and what it might generate,” he said.
Sasser said he doesn’t believe the speech of a pastor in Florida will put lives in danger.
“No government official should be using their official position with the government to try to influence a citizen’s right to be able to have free speech – especially religious speech which is fully protected by the Constitution,” Sasser said.
With reporting from FoxNews.com