Out of Order

In short: An individual was arrested and charged with a hate crime for flushing a Koran in a toilet on the campus of Pace University [AP].

Ah, good old Pace. He clearly deserves some sort of punishment, that building has a ridiculous shortage of toilets (they were rather sketch to begin with – or maybe that is just NYC in July…).

Vandalism is the offense (and perhaps theft – as noted below). That certainly needs to be addressed. The question is whether a particular intent – hatred – should be considered an aggravating factor to the crime. [Note that nobody knows the intent, we’re all just, perhaps unfairly, speculating.]

With hate crime legislation, hate is added as a factor to redress the harm done to (an implicitly minority) community, the hostile environment the action fosters. As commenters note, “it’s the affect it has on that worshipper that makes it a hate crime.”

This is one of many reasons hate crime legislation is so dangerous.

Sticks and stones aren’t the only things that hurt. Speech hurts. Consider the Piss Christ debate. Believers frequently advanced the argument that this NEA-funded art fostered a hostile atmosphere toward Christianity. As the Justice said, “It is often true that one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.”

Fine. Christians aren’t really an oppressed minority, even if they sometimes claim to be one. But artistic expression has run up against interpretations of Islam before. “A Koran with a Buddha shape carved into it (a reference to the Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban)” was removed from Roq la Rue. Or even political expression, when a gay artist burned an antique Koran (worth $60k) to protest its homophobic content. Perhaps both speakers were hate-free. But suppose otherwise. Do the intolerant really deserve fewer speech rights than the rest of us? (Mill would say no – the best way to show them error is to debate them freely.) PZ Meyers could certainly be construed to ‘hate’ religion. Does that limit his speech?

I really like books, and I really like community, but I am an even biger supporter of the pointed criticism of ideas. There is a long and proud tradition of treating undue sanctimony with disrespectful insolence. It is, perhaps, even central to debates about the place of religion in society. The pomp holiness of the devout is best countered with a little irreverence. But a free debate cannot have legal limits enforced by one side.

Attacking beliefs through criticism (even creative responses) is legitimate, necessary, and hopefully protected speech. At least it should be.

Note 1: This isn’t exactly a stellar example for a hate crime. As a result, several commenters – including Shakespeare’s Sister – make the rhetorical connection to cross burning. But cross burning is a clear threat of violence, deeply rooted in a bloody and terrible history. This makes it an extreme case, and removes it from the category of otherwise protected speech. Anti-Muslim sentiment doesn’t have that sort of connection to Quran flushing.

Note 2: Shakespeare’s Sister says it was stolen – Deep Thoughts suggests it was his. No, wait, apparently there is a photo of him taking it out of the Muslim student center. Vandalism makes sense there. But that is irrelevant to hate, I think, and touches more on the underlying crime. Stealing a flag and burning it doesn’t suddenly demote the act from expression. It just makes it theft.

Note 3: “There is no law, including hate crime laws, that would prevent you from doing what you suggest in private.” But speech, of course, has to be public. Sure, I can criticize the President in the privacy of my own home and not offend anyone. But I imagine the First Amendment had a more robust, democratic, purpose. Ditto for public debates about religions of all sorts.  It is precisely the impact it has on the community that justifies its protection.

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One Response to “Out of Order”

  1. A new fraud on the Internet Says:

    A new fraud on the Internet

    A new fraud on the Internet

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