Friday 15 July 2011

Is publicly burning the Koran legal?

There were four freedoms derived from the 1941 State of the Union Address by United States President Franklin Roosevelt delivered to the 77th United States Congress on January 6, 1941. The theme was incorporated into the Atlantic Charter, and it became part of the charter of the United Nations and appears in the preamble of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. The main articles are; Freedom of speech in the United States and Censorship in the United States.

The United States, like other liberal democracies, is a constitutional republic based on founding documents that restrict the power of government to preserve the liberty of the people. The freedom of expression (including speech, media, and public assembly) is an important right and is given special protection as declared by the First amendment of the Constitution. According to Supreme Court precedent, the federal and lower governments may not apply prior restraint to expression, with certain exceptions, such as national security and obscenity. There is no law punishing insults against the government, ethnic groups, or religious groups. Symbols of the government or its officials may be destroyed in protest, including the American flag.

The question that comes to the fore is; “Does this mean that people can publicly burn holy books without any legal consequences because of their rights to the freedom of speech?”

In April 2011, a radical evangelical pastor (Terry Jones) wearing black robes and sitting as self-appointed judge, called his so-called court to order from behind his pulpit.

Terry Jones is a homophobic used furniture salesman who has become famous solely through the use of controversy. The 59-year-old runs the ‘Dove World Outreach Centre’ in Gainsville, Florida, whose congregation numbers just a few dozen who comprise mostly of members of his family and some friends.

The church is based in a 20-acre compound where Jones lives with his wife, Sylvia, and is said to regularly patrol the grounds with a pistol strapped to his hip. He took over the church in 1996 on the death of its founder, Dr. Don Northrup, after Jones spent 20 years as a missionary in Europe, including Germany. ‘Dove World Outreach’ is funded by the pastor's furniture firm, TS & Company, which buys vintage items from Europe and sells them in the US. The employees are members of the church, who are understood to work for no wages and live rent-free in run-down properties owned by the pastor and his wife. When Pastor Jones was in Germany, his daughter Emma, one of his three children, described the church as a cult and accused her father of financial and workplace abuse.

Jones’ chief enemies are homosexuals and Muslims, although he insists it is only radical Islam which he opposes. In the past he has erected a sign outside the church to protest against the decision of Craig Lowe, a gay county commissioner, to run for mayor. The sign read; "No homo mayor."

In July 2010, he put up another sign that stated; "Islam is of the Devil" to which he added an effigy of a Muslim hanging a Christian. Children of his congregation (his own children and those of several members of his so-called church) were then sent to school wearing tee-shirts bearing the slogan. The clothing was put on sale on the church website.

Last year, Jones threatened to burn copies of the Muslim holy book to mark the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on New York. He was only dissuaded from doing so after President Barack Obama personally intervened to say such an act would endanger the lives of US troops.

In January 2011, Jones was barred from entering the UK by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, "for the public good" after which Jones accused the Government of "the sabotage of the basic human rights of freedom of speech and freedom of expression". Jones had originally been invited by the English Defence League to attend a rally in Luton, against the presence of Islam in Britain, but that invitation was later withdrawn.

He subsequently began promoting ‘International Judge the Koran Day’ to be held on March 20, 2011 which he said would put the Koran "on trial".

He has published a guide called ‘Ten Reasons to Burn a Koran’, railed against the rights of women to have abortions and describes homosexuality as a sin.

In the role of prosecutor was a former Egyptian Muslim who had converted to Christianity, while a Texas-based Sudanese imam defied death threats to fly in from Dallas to provide the defence.

A jury of nine men and three women – all members or supporters of Jones' tiny congregation at the ‘Dove World Outreach Centre’ in Gainesville – listened for several hours to proceedings often conducted in heavily accented English or translated from Arabic.

And they then reached the unanimous verdict that the Koran was guilty of several "crimes against humanity", including the promotion of terrorism and "the death, rape and torture of people worldwide whose only crime is not being of the Islamic faith". Actually, Mohammed stated that Muslims should not harm persons of other faiths.

Jones, the mutton-chopped biblical preacher, had already conducted an online poll to determine the punishment if, as was hardly surprising in the circumstances, the Koran was found guilty. The choices had been burning, shredding, drowning or firing squad – and the pastor said that voters had chosen that the book should be set on fire.

Jones had already conducted an online poll to determine the punishment if, as was hardly surprising in the circumstances, Jones’ church found the Koran guilty.
Jones said that the voters had chosen that the book should be set on fire.

Passing down sentence, he said; "Let me emphasize again that it is not that we burn the Koran with some type of vindictive motive. We do not even burn it with great pleasure or any pleasure at all. We burn it because we feel a deep obligation to stay with the court system of America. The court system of United States does not allow convicted criminals to go free. The punishment was chosen by the people."
It is ludicrous to suggest that a book should be referred to as a criminal.

Fellow pastor Wayne Sapp enacted the punishment; drenching the Koran in kerosene and setting it alight with a cigarette lighter. "That actually burned quite well," Jones noted approvingly at the end of a video posted on the church website.

It is not clear how it took over a week for the burning to come to light but, in the past, members of the media have refrained from publicizing his activities for fear of inadvertently spreading his message.

It was Jones’ latest and by far the most severe incident in which he had been involved. He had first threatened to burn a pile of Korans on last year's ninth anniversary of the Sept 11 terror atrocities, linking his plan to proposals for an Islamic centre and mosque to be built near the Ground Zero site where the World Trade Centre was destroyed that day. But he backed down then under intense pressure, including interventions from President Barack Obama and Gen David Petraeus, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan who warned that such a stunt would endanger American lives.

It was the burning of the Koran incident which sparked the slaughter in Afghanistan, while Jones was preaching at a service at his church on March 20, 2011 when his colleague, Pastor Wayne Sapp, set a copy of the Koran alight.

However, Jones denied any responsibility for the riot in Mazar-e Sharif, in which around 20 people died, including two who were reportedly beheaded, in what is the worst incident of its kind in recent years.

He said he was "absolutely not responsible" for the atrocities, and tried to move the blame to Muslims, saying; "We must take a serious, serious look at Islam. It's a violent religion that promotes acts of violence. I believe we need to bring this before the UN."

In contrast to the outcry created by his threat last year, the farcical faux trial that he conducted on his so-called ‘International Judge The Koran Day’ on March 20, 2011 apparently garnered little initial publicity or response.

But that all changed tragically with the murderous mob onslaught on United Nations staff in Mazar-i-Sharif that has thrown into doubt the future of UN operations in Afghanistan.

Jones responded to the attacks in defiant mode, insisting that while he was "devastated" by the killings, his church felt no responsibility for the deaths. In a statement, he went on the offensive with a demand that the United States and UN take "immediate action" against Muslim nations in retaliation for the deaths. "The time has come to hold Islam accountable," he said.

Gainesville police stepped up security that weekend at the 50-member church where some worshippers said they feared attack. "We have a huge stack of death threats," said Fran Ingram, a volunteer. "We take precautions. I have a handgun. A lot of us have concealed weapons permits. We're a small church, and we don't have money to hire security."

The city's mayor condemned the actions of Jones while other church leaders expressed regret that they had belatedly received publicity and that Jones’ action unleashed such a bloody reaction.

"The local strategy of everybody was to ignore this," said Lawrence Reimer, pastor of the United Church of Gainesville. "It's just a horrible tragedy that this act triggered the deaths of more innocent people."

Now it has to be obvious to everyone except the congregational twits that belong to Jones’ so-called church that the burning of holy books is morally wrong but as I asked earlier, is it illegal?

A Dutch court acquitted Wilder on June 23, 2011 of charges that he “incited hatred and discrimination of Muslims.” A charge had been brought under Dutch law by a group of organizations that used Wilder’s inflammatory speeches and writings as “evidence” to literally “force” a three-year trial.

John Galliano, on the other hand was a flamboyant and temperamental former Dior designer (until he was fired) who was accused of making racist and anti-Semitic remarks in public after a loud tirade directed against a Jewish woman at a café. His one-day trial took place in Paris that week. This is apparently a crime in France, punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of 22,500 Euros (US$31,187)

On 25 February 2011, Dior (his employer) announced that it had suspended Galliano following his arrest over an alleged anti-Semitic tirade in a Paris bar. One the same day, Paris-based citizen journalism site Citizenside received a video of Galliano on a similar rant in the same bar the previous December. In the video Galliano who was drunk, hurled anti-semitic rants at a group of Italian women and declared "I love Hitler... People like you would be dead. Your mothers, your forefathers would all be fucking gassed."

In the United States, the First Amendment states;

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” unquote

“The pertinent aspect of the issue of whether or not Jones could publicly burn the Koran with impunity is; or abridging the freedom of speech.

Madison's version of the speech and press clauses, introduced in the House of Representatives on June 8, 1789, provided;

"The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable." The special committee rewrote the language to some extent, adding other provisions from Madison's draft, to make it read;

"The freedom of speech and of the press, and the right of the people peaceably to assemble and consult for their common good, and to apply to the Government for redress of grievances, shall not be infringed."

In this form, it went to the Senate, which then rewrote it to read; "That Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech."

When Jones publicly said, “We must take a serious, serious look at Islam. It's a violent religion that promotes acts of violence.” he was exercising his right to free speech.

But does the right to free speech absolve someone from publicly burning a holy book? Apparently it does. The Supreme Court ruled that it is not against the law to publicly burn the national flag.

However, the question comes to the fore as to whether or not the burning of a holy book can create a ‘clear and present danger to society’.

Certain expression, oral or written, may incite, urge, counsel, advocate, or importune the commission of criminal conduct; other expression, such as picketing, demonstrating, and engaging in certain forms of ''symbolic'' action may either counsel the commission of criminal conduct or itself constitute criminal conduct. Leaving aside for the moment the problem of ''speech-plus'' communication, it becomes necessary to determine when expression that may be a nexus to criminal conduct is subject to punishment and restraint.

At first, the Supreme Court seemed disposed in the few cases reaching it to rule that if the conduct could be made criminal, the advocacy of or promotion of the conduct could be made criminal. Then, in Schenck v. United States, in which defendants had been convicted of seeking to disrupt recruitment of military personnel by dissemination of certain leaflets, Justice Holmes formulated the ‘clear and present danger’ test which has ever since been the starting point of argument. He said in part;

"The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a ‘clear and present danger’ that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree." unquote

This question can apply to physical acts such as the burning of the Koran.

The convictions were unanimously affirmed. One week later, the Court again unanimously affirmed convictions under the same Act with Justice Holmes speaking.

"We think it necessary to add to what has been said in Schenck v. United States only that the First Amendment while prohibiting legislation against free speech as such cannot have been, and obviously was not, intended to give immunity for every possible use of language. We venture to believe that neither Hamilton nor Madison, nor any other competent person then or later, ever supposed that to make criminal the counseling of a murder within the jurisdiction of Congress would be an unconstitutional interference with free speech." unquote

And in Debs v. United States, Justice Holmes was found referring to ''the natural and intended effect'' and ''probable effect'' of the condemned speech in common-law tones.

But in Abrams v. United States, Justices Holmes and Brandeis dissented upon affirmance of the convictions of several alien anarchists who had printed leaflets seeking to encourage discontent with United States participation in the War. The majority simply referred to Schenck and Frohwerk to rebut the First Amendment argument, but the dissenters urged that the Government had made no showing of a clear and present danger.

Another affirmance by the Court of a conviction, the majority simply saying that; "The tendency of the articles and their efficacy were enough for the offense," drew a similar dissent. Moreover, in Gitlow v. New York, a conviction for distributing a manifesto in violation of a law making it criminal to advocate, advise, or teach the duty, necessity, or propriety of overthrowing organized government by force or violence, the Court affirmed in the absence of any evidence regarding the effect of the distribution and in the absence of any contention that it created any immediate threat to the security of the State. In so doing, the Court discarded Holmes' test. It ruled;

"It is clear that the question in such cases as this is entirely different from that involved in those cases where the statute merely prohibits certain acts involving the danger of substantive evil, without any reference to language itself, and it is sought to apply its provisions to language used by the defendant for the purpose of bringing about the prohibited results. In such cases it has been held that the general provisions of the statute may be constitutionally applied to the specific utterance of the defendant if its natural tendency and probable effect was to bring about the substantive evil which the legislative body might prevent. The general statement in the Schenck Case was manifestly intended to apply only in cases of this class, and has no application to those like the present, where the legislative body itself has previously determined the danger of substantive evil arising from utterances of a specified character." unquote

Thus, a state legislative determination "that utterances advocating the overthrow of organized government by force, violence, and unlawful means, are so inimical to the general welfare, and involve such danger of substantive evil that they may be penalized in the exercise of its police power." was almost conclusive on the Court.

This raises an interesting question. "Is the public burning of a holy book so inimical to the general welfare of human beings and involves such danger of substantive evil that the act can result in the loss of human lives and for this reason, should be punishable by law?"

In a dissent from the opinion of the Court, Justice Brandeis restated the "clear and present danger" test when he wrote;

"Even advocacy of violation of the law is not a justification for denying free speech where the advocacy falls short of incitement and there is nothing to indicate that the advocacy would be immediately acted on. In order to support a finding of clear and present danger it must be shown either that immediate serious violence was to be expected or was advocated, or that the past conduct furnished reason to believe that such advocacy was then contemplated." unquote

Did Jones anticipate that his act of permitting the Koran to be publicly burned on the lawn of his so-called church would bring about the risk of the lives of others? He is a fool but not oblivious as to how Muslims would react to what he had done. And as history has shown us, his church’s burning of the Koran brought about a loss of lives of Afghans in Afghanistan. It could have brought about the lives of American soldiers in Afghanistan and elsewhere but it didn’t. If it had, would the American authorities then considered his act as an act of incitement?

Whether or not the Americans would have considered his act as an act of incitement, I think it did. And if committing an act of incitement is an offence, then does it not follow that the freedom of speech defence should not apply with respect to the public burning of the Koran?

In Canada, a recent court decision ruled that it was illegal to plant a burning cross on someone’s lawn. The second of two brothers who burned a cross on the lawn of an interracial couple in Windsor, Nova Scotia, was sentenced to two months in jail. Justin Rehberg, 20, was sentenced for criminal harassment and inciting racial hatred.

Surely the publicly burning of the Koran is a form of inciting religious hatred.

Section 319(2) of the Canadian Criminal Code constitutes a reasonable limit upon freedom of expression. Parliament's objective of preventing the harm caused by hate propaganda is of sufficient importance to warrant overriding the constitutional freedom of speech. Parliament has recognized the substantial harm that can flow from hate propaganda and in trying to prevent the pain suffered by target group members and to reduce racial, ethnic and religious tension and perhaps even violence in Canada, has decided to suppress the willful promotion of hatred against identifiable groups.

When Rehberg and his brother placed a cross on the law of a black couple and set it on fire it, was a form of hate propaganda just as printing a picture of a burning cross in a tract aimed at blacks is. The court was right to state that these two young men were inciting racial hatred against blacks just as publicly burning the Koran was a form of religious hatred against Islam. Muslims are an identifiable group of people and attacking their religion is no different than attacking Muslims.
One is free to disagree with some or even all of their tenets of Islam but in my respectful opinion, burning their holy book in public is inciting religious hatred and it should be condemned with consequences.

Section 876.18 of the Florida Criminal Code states;

"It shall be unlawful for any person or persons to place or cause to be placed on the property of another in the state a burning or flaming cross or any manner of exhibit in which a burning or flaming cross, real or simulated, is a whole or part without first obtaining written permission of the owner or occupier of the premises to so do. Any person who violates this section commits a misdemeanor of the first degree, punishable as provided." unquote

Now the reason why this law was enacted was so that racial hatred would not be encouraged. Now it could be argued that a burning cross is a form of expression and as such, it is protected by the right to freedom of expression. However, the fact that it is placed on private property not belonging to those placing it on the property of someone else is what makes the act illegal. But suppose a person places a burning cross on his own property as a means of expressing his hatred for blacks, is he within his rights to express himself in this manner?

Section  876.52 states;

“Whoever publicly mutilates, defaces, or tramples upon or burns with intent to insult any flag, standard, colors, or ensign of the United States or of Florida shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree, punishable as provided.”

That section is no longer applicable. Outside the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Gregory Lee Johnson burned a flag in protest against President Ronald Reagan's policies. He was arrested under Texas' flag desecration statute. In its 5-4 ruling in Texas v. Johnson, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the flag desecration laws in 48 states by ruling that flag desecration is a constitutionally protected form of free speech.

Florida does not have a law that prohibits the public burning of a religious holy book. Perhaps they should enact one that was similar to defacing a flag. Until such a law comes into force in Florida, twerps like Jones will continue placing Americans and people of other nation’s lives at risk by burning or otherwise defacing the Koran and other holy books.

The problem facing the people of the United States is that burning a religious holy book may be protected by a constitutionally protected form of free speech.

There is only one way to stop this twerp and others like him from desecrating the religious holy books of other faiths and that is for the press and other forms of news media to refuse to show up at any of their book burning exhibitions.

There is an old saying that applies in situations like that.“No news is good news.”

Unfortunately, the news media loves to print and show incidents that infuriate its readers. It’s good copy they say and it increases their readership and viewers.

Until the news media comes to the realization that some news can create real problems for innocent people, then Jones and others of his ilk will have their days in which they can flout their crap in the face of millions of decent people even though they knows that innocent people will suffer because of their evil actions.

UPDATE September 12, 2013:   Pastor Terry Jones and his associate pastor, Marvin Sapp Jr. have done it again. They were arrested for attempting to burn 2,998 Korans (representing the number of people killed in 9/11) after soaking the Muslim holy books in kerosene in the small town of Mulberry in Florida. That previous times they succeeded in insulting Muslims world-wide resulted in the deaths of 7 Americans.

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