The struggle for civil rights in the last century forged a national commitment to preserving free speech in the face of hostile audiences. At the beginning of this century, it is alarming how quickly the Koran controversy that erupted before 9/11 melted that resolve.

Initially, everyone from Mayor Bloomberg to the White House affirmed a right to burn the book even as they condemned the act. Then Gen. David Petraeus got involved, followed by the FBI, and now Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer says Koran burning may not be protected speech after all.

The key to this rapid reversal was General Petraeus' warning that Koran burning "could endanger troops" and the war effort. Although styled as a request not a demand, his comments laid the legal foundation for compelled government censorship. The reason is that First Amendment rights are not absolute. The Constitution permits the government to censor speech if necessary to achieve a compelling government interest. This is a very high standard, but the fact that the nation's top commander made a rare public appeal for restraint will be cited as strong evidence that avoiding offense to Muslims is essential to the national interest.

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