To Each Their Own Rights

Last week Community Board 1 held a full board meeting with an agenda item so contentious and controversial that the chair of the board had to call in an unprecedented police presence. The hearing was held to vet the issue of the Cordoba Initiative’s plans to build a community and prayer center two blocks from the World Trade Center site.

There were skirmishes in the audience as opponents and proponents of the Cordoba Initiative, which most likely will move into the old Burlington Coat Factory building in the near future, exchanged hateful words and rhetoric. As people approached the microphone during the public input session, they were booed, screamed at, and berated on both sides. However there is no doubt that one group was louder than the other.

Through all of this C.B.1 Chair Julie Menin and member Ro Scheffe managed to keep a semblance of order. There was a lot of gavel banging and a lot of “You’re out of order.” But at the end of the night everyone was allowed to speak.

We commend the Cordoba Initiative for presenting their plans to the community board, and the board for taking up this issue. The project is “as-of-right” and as such did not require any public review or appearance before the community board. But at the heart of the issue was a community center, job creation and services that directly concern the Lower Manhattan community. Some members of the board did not think that the issue should even have been aired by the board. And we respect their views. But we would like to focus on the notion of community and had C.B. 1 chose not to debate the issue, they would have done their community a great disservice.

What was so appalling however was the pure hatred expressed toward the Cordoba Initiative, a group that has long proven itself to be the opposite of those who committed the atrocity of 9/11.  In fact, their sole mission is to make sure such an atrocity will never happen again and to deplete the hatred and misdirected anger that was on full display during the meeting and to replace it with education and understanding of other cultures.

In response to C.B. 1’s 29-1 vote in support of the Cordoba Initiative’s plans, a protest is scheduled for this Sunday by a group called Stop Islamization of America. Originally it was supposed to be held at Zuccotti Park; however that park happens to be privately owned, and the owners, Brookfield Properties, informed the group they would not be allowed to protest there. So then the group apparently applied for a permit to protest on the streets across from the park. Neither the city nor the N.Y.P.D. have gone on record as of presstime stating whether a permit was issued or revoked. Nonetheless, according to the website for Stop Islamization of America, the protest will go on and there could be upwards of 5,000 people, some carpooling from all over the country to show up and express their views on an issue they hold dear.

The First Amendment is a tricky little thing. It reads pretty straightforward, but since it was written 221 years ago it has been a subject of great debate. The American Civil Liberties Union, though long branded as a vehicle for advancing liberal causes, to the contrary defends the rights of everyone to express their views, even views deemed heinous.

The important point is that the freedom of expression is for everyone, not just for expression that people may support. The city and the police need to work to find this group an appropriate venue to exercise their rights of free speech and assembly.