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Limits to Freedom?

A judge in South Africa has outlawed the burning of Bibles, planned by a Muslim activist as a response to the now-cancelled burning of Qurans in Florida.

This is interesting in so many different ways. One our dearest freedoms is the freedom of speech, and we consider many acts to be protected speech. So while tremendous pressure was brought to bear against Pastor Terry Jones to get him to call off the Quran burning, it would not occur to most Americans that burning a religious book could be illegal. People in South Africa do not have that same freedom.

We also have limits to free speech. You can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater. And defamation (libel and slander) is illegal, because it harms someone. But doesn’t the burning of a holy book harm lots of people? Should it be illegal here?

Personally, I’m glad it is not illegal, because who is to say what is holy and what is not. I’d be the first person out there suing someone who burned the image of the Flying Spaghetti Monster if burning holy documents were illegal.

Secondly, it is interesting because the group that sought the injunction against the Bible burning is an Islamic group called Scholars of the Truth, who consider the burning of any religious books offensive (not just Islamic ones). Other Muslim groups in South Africa were also on record against the burning of Bibles.

One reason for this is that Muslims also consider Jesus to be a prophet who is part of the Quran, so burning the Bible would be in effect burning part of the Quran. Apparently, some Christian pastors are not so enlightened.

After the verdict, the person who had planned the Bible burning was actually happy he was stopped. “Luckily they stopped me from doing it.”

But the best thing to come of this whole mess is the response from the locals in Gainesville, FL, who came out actively against the pastor’s proposed burning of the Quran. For example: “He doesn’t represent the community. This guy is obviously a publicity hound and a weirdo.” and “He’s a lunatic. … I don’t want this to represent my neighborhood.”

UPDATE: People in Amarillo, Texas also came out to protest a planned Quran burning. One person stole his lighter and another grabbed the Quran and gave it to an Islamic leader who was there to protest. Maybe there’s hope for us after all.



  1. Richard wrote:

    If burning a Quran can be thought of as yelling fire in a crowded theater, how many other things in a free society are possibly offensive to religious fanatics and so, the equivalent of yelling fire?

    Where do you draw the line?

    Of course its legal to burn these books but is it wise? Its legal to build or move the Islamic community center in lower Manhattan but which one is wise (given the larger strategic thinking about affecting fanatics elsewhere)?

    Balancing the protection of our freedoms and a strategy for not inflaming fanatics elsewhere puts a free society to the test.

    Sunday, September 12, 2010 at 4:47 am | Permalink
  2. ebdoug wrote:

    I still say it is an act of Terrorism or “inciting to riot”

    Sunday, September 12, 2010 at 6:43 am | Permalink
  3. TENTHIRTYTWO wrote:

    Our rights are called inalienable for a reason. They do not fade on the rising and falling of opinion. They do not disappear because we are worried about the opinions of lunatics.

    Our rights give us our freedom, and it is that freedom which makes us great. It has nothing to do with the colors of our flag or the nature and opinions of our founding fathers. The flag is just fabric and our founding fathers were just men. Our freedom is the closest we will ever get to creating and possessing something magical.

    Sunday, September 12, 2010 at 8:31 am | Permalink
  4. Andrew wrote:

    I’m not really sure there a explicitly any limitations to freedom of speech.

    Yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre is the classic example, but it’s not that you can’t say it (there exists no law passed to my knowledge that prevents you from *saying* it), but the consequences for have done it may be that you incite a riot. Now, there is a law for that and there are lots of way to incite a riot. Under the right circumstances, a perfectly legal and mundane thing may incite a riot, but we probably shouldn’t make that thing illegal, rather stressing better judgement in assessing situations.

    Defamation is a great example, but this a particularly tricky thing and has been greatly debated in the context of the first amendment. Apparently, on the federal level, there exists no criminal defamation laws. And even at the state level it’s a very hard thing to accomplish. So, really, there isn’t a criminal law that prevents you from saying it. One might be able to get some kind of civil penalties thing, but even that seems to be easily batted away with a “fair comment and criticism” defense.

    So in the context of burning things (flags, books, couches, etc…), there are probably laws for public safety and open fires (especially in city limits), and definitely ones about inciting a riot, but the act itself probably shouldn’t be illegal. If I were to set fire to the Bible and that act lead to no more todo than someone saying “he oughtn’t to have done that disrespectful thing” then where is the folly (apart from me being kind of a jerk)? If I do it and a riot breaks out, then I’m probably on the hook for that. Fair enough.

    Sure, burning stuff as a political statement pisses people off. That’s why people do it; they want to get the most visceral reaction they can from people and insulting them is a pretty good way to do it. What’s more is that if the perpetrator plays their cards right, and the pissed off people resort to violence, then the inciter can play the “see, they are all mindless violent idiots” card with relative impunity.

    Is it insensitive to other cultures? yes. Is it a good idea? probably not. Could it incite violence from extremists? sure, but really that’s the problem with extremists… they might be incited to violence by almost anything. they wouldn’t be extremists if they were rational thinking people.

    Sunday, September 12, 2010 at 10:17 am | Permalink
  5. patriotsgt wrote:

    ThoughtDancer- It’s Sunday, no school. Relax and watch football.

    1032 – spoken like a true patriot.

    Sunday, September 12, 2010 at 10:19 am | Permalink
  6. PatriotSGT. Former English Prof here. I may be “former”, but there are times that I just can’t turn it off. And Iron Knee and I have a bit of a history with catching each other’s errors. He would be cool with it.

    Anyhow, football? … I’d almost rather grade grammar quizzes.

    (Goes off to read some SF. 😉 )

    Sunday, September 12, 2010 at 3:35 pm | Permalink
  7. Iron Knee wrote:

    Yeah, I don’t mind other grammar/spelling nazis, since I’m one too.

    Sunday, September 12, 2010 at 4:41 pm | Permalink
  8. ebdoug wrote:

    Oh, so I should point out that she is Sharron Angle, not Sharon Angle? As in people misspelling Glenn Beck’s name all the time.

    Sunday, September 12, 2010 at 5:01 pm | Permalink
  9. If burning religious items became illegal, I’d start a tree-worshiping religion and sue every campground in america.

    Sunday, September 12, 2010 at 5:37 pm | Permalink
  10. steeve wrote:

    I never got the yelling “fire” in a crowded theater thing. I can’t yell “marshmallows” in a crowded theater either. I’d get ushered out and banned if I kept doing it.

    Sunday, September 12, 2010 at 6:39 pm | Permalink
  11. Maslab wrote:

    We have to draw the line somewhere. We have the freedom of speech. What we do not have is the right to not be offended.

    Sunday, September 12, 2010 at 7:37 pm | Permalink
  12. patriotsgt wrote:

    LOL at Thought Dancer, IK and Ebdoug

    Monday, September 13, 2010 at 5:47 am | Permalink