One Man’s Freedom of Expression is Another Man’s Hate Crime

We seem to have strayed a long way from our valuing of free speech, perhaps best stated by Voltaire “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” In this age of political correctness, both the Right and the Left has bastardized the idea of free speech to a more politically correct attitude: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend your right to say it until someone else is offended.”

As I was driving in to work, I caught a couple of segments of The Mike Gallagher Show (a show I do not normally listen to). Gallagher brought up a case which happened at Pace University where a 23 year-old man by the name of Stanislav Shmulevich allegedly threw a Quran in a toilet on two separate occasions. The university originally reported the crime as an act of vandalism but later decided to report the act to the NYPD as a hate crime instead. I assumed that Gallagher would go on to criticize this as political correctness run amok but to my astonishment, he said that treating this act as a “hate crime” was completely appropriate. Gallagher went even further to say that certain acts such as desecrating a “holy book” (regardless of the faith), the American flag, or burning crosses should all be exempt from First Amendment protection. In his view, there are just some things which should be held sacred; those who commit “crimes” against what he or others consider “sacred” should be punished criminally.

Gallagher’s arguments got even weaker from there. Several callers challenged him on this notion and Gallagher would ask questions like (paraphrasing) “Should we consider it free speech when someone paints swastikas on a Jewish person’s home?” and “What about burning a cross in the lawn of an African American, is that free speech?” Perhaps his most absurd example was whether or not a person dressed in Nazi uniform goose stepping in a Jewish neighborhood should be protected by the First Amendment.

All of these questions can be easily answered if only we go back to the basic idea that each individual has the natural rights of life, liberty, and property (“your freedom ends where my nose begins”); nowhere in our Constitution is there a right to not be offended. Painting swastikas on a Jewish person’s home or burning a cross in an African American’s yard are both violations of these individuals’ right to property, and therefore, the perpetrator should be prosecuted on those grounds.

So, what about the racist bastard goose stepping in a Jewish neighborhood? Assuming the idiot does so on public property, s/he is protected by the First Amendment. Being an anti-Semitic moron, while infuriating to most sensible people, is not a crime nor should it be.

One could argue that these above acts would be acts of intimidation and could warrant criminal prosecution (certainly in the first two examples would be prosecutable without “hate crimes” laws, the last example would still be a bit of a stretch) but I fail to see how desecrating a book which some people deem as “holy” even rises to this standard. There’s no question that desecrating a holy book is offensive to a great majority of people, but a crime? Thomas Jefferson found fault with much of the Bible and therefore proceeded to physically cut and paste the portions of the Bible that he found to be authentic to create his own interpretation of the Bible and discarded the rest. References to the virgin birth, the resurrection, angels, and other miracles were all omitted from the Jefferson Bible. Clearly, if someone like Gallagher knew of someone doing something like this today, he would regard this person as a hate criminal.

The whole purpose of the First Amendment is to protect speech that can be and often is offensive to the sensibilities of a person, a group, or even a majority. Popular speech does not need to be protected nearly as much. I might not like it if someone chooses to burn an American flag, desecrate a copy of Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness, or wishes to write terrible things about me on a post I have written but unless such an individual does these things without threatening my life, liberty, or property, I have to put up with these things. It’s the price I pay for living in a free society and a price I am quite willing to pay.

Cross posted here at Fearless Philosophy for Free Minds

Related Posts:
The First Amendment Explained: Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses (Part 1 of 2)
The First Amendment Explained: Free Speech (Part 2 of 2)

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/2007/05/07/reparations-for-guam-insanity-squared/ Doug Mataconis

    The problem, Stephen, is that we’re dealing with a culture that has no conception of ideas like free speech and individual liberty.

    And don’t be surprised by Gallagher’s reaction to this story, Bill O’Reilly said pretty much the same thing.

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/ Stephen Littau

    I’m not as suprised to hear such disregard for the First Amendment from Bill O’Reilly.

  • http://dangerouslyidealistic.blogspot.com/ UCrawford

    Doug,

    Are you referring to the Muslims or us? Because as far as I know Gallagher and O’Reilly aren’t Muslim and neither seems to have much of a comprehension of free speech or individual liberty.

    As for Islam, it would be provincial and historically ignorant to claim that the “culture” has no conception of ideas like free speech and individual liberty. Read stories about the life and times of Ibn Battuta sometime (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ibn_battuta). Or ask the average Pashtun or Tajik in Afghanistan what he thinks of centralized government. Many of them see it as a prelude to slavery (just like many of us do) and are opposed, and they’re devout Muslims. Or read Tariq Ramadan’s theories about the need for reformation within the religion and the need to assimilate to other cultures(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tariq_Ramadan). The beliefs in the ideal form of government within the Islamic world vary just as much as they do in any other culture…claiming otherwise is usually just generalization based on ignorance, exemplified by many of those useless assholes on Fox News.

    And as the Crusades and the post-WWII gifting of Palestine showed, Western civilization has hardly been the champions of liberty when it comes to dealing with the Muslims. People who truly support freedom don’t selectively apply that ideal only to the cultural group they happen to be a part of.

  • somebody

    The whole “hate crime” notion can be looked at through a very clear, objective lens. All it does is add punishment to thought, which the founders considered free and an inalienable right. And for good reason: it is free thought and its conveyance (speech) that encourage humanity’s progression without violence. Without that freedom we fall back on the same tribalist concepts of using violence to silence those we do not agree with. The proper response to perpetrators of “hate crimes” is to reason with them and counter-argue their logic. There also exists a very practical reason to oppose “hate crimes”: government will define what is hate and what is not.

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/2007/05/07/reparations-for-guam-insanity-squared/ Doug Mataconis

    UCrawford,

    You know, I was referring to Islam but I guess you could read what I wrote to refer to the U.S. in general. This isn’t all that different from the controversy that abounded when that artist in NY put a crucifix in a jar of urine. The difference being that he was never charged with a crime.

    You are right that Islam has a far less checked past than we’ve been led t believe, but a story like this strikes me as disturbingly similar to the Mohammed cartoons incident.

  • http://dangerouslyidealistic.blogspot.com/ UCrawford

    The Muslims weren’t responsible for turning the guy in, the university was as a form of political correctness trampling free speech. I’ll agree that many adherents of Islam are intolerant or violent proponents of totalitarian theocracy (although I feel the same about many adherents of Christianity, Judaism, Hindu, etc…). But in this case they’re pretty much blameless. The university, the state of New York, and the conservative pundits are the ones who violated the student’s right to free speech, not “Islam”.

    And I’ll agree that Islam’s got a checkered past, same as any other religion. But its adherents are still people capable of thought and evolution, so I hardly think they or their religion are incapable of change. The Catholic church had a long history of crushing freedom in Western civilization back in the day, but we eventually had the Reformation and lo and behold the situation changed. Islam’s capable of the same sort of evolution, especially if we quit trying to interfere and dictate our preferences to them.

  • http://dangerouslyidealistic.blogspot.com/ UCrawford

    Although the guy did deserve to be prosecuted for trashing someone else’s copy of the Quran. Same as I would deserve to be prosecuted for spray painting swastikas or anarchy symbols on someone else’s house. The only thing that makes the treatment of the suspect distasteful is the “hate crime” aspect.

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/2007/05/07/reparations-for-guam-insanity-squared/ Doug Mataconis

    UCrawford,

    My understanding is that the pressure to charge him with a hate crime came from Muslim student groups, but I may be wrong about that.

  • TheGZeus

    I’m getting the hell out of this country ASAP if Ron Paul isn’t elected in the next 8 years…

  • UCrawford

    Doug,

    Yup, that’s my understanding too, although I got from the article that their complaints were against the university ignoring warning signs of potential violence in general as opposed to the actions of Shmulevich specifically. If they were attempting to target just this specific action, I agree that they’re wrong for doing so. I think a fatal flaw with Islam currently is that they embrace the concept of collective rights while eschewing the concept of individual rights and this instance would be indicative of that. Or perhaps we’re wrong and all the Muslim groups were trying to do was keep Shmulevich’s actions from inspiring other people to take things to a more violent level (equally plausible). The article should have been clearer I think.

    That said, however, the Muslim groups peacefully petitioned the university (just like a lot of groups do) to punish this act under a ridiculous law enacted by the state. The worst you can accuse the Muslims of in this case is using a corrupt system to achieve a short-sighted and somewhat hypocritical end. But it’s the university that agreed with them and the state that put those tools in place to be abused, so they’re the guilty parties in this all, not “Islam”. You could substitute just about any group that often falls back on the discrimination defense in this story instead of Muslims, and few of them would look out of place.

  • Aimee

    UCrawford,
    you said “Although the guy did deserve to be prosecuted for trashing someone else’s copy of the Quran”.

    Nowhere in the article did it say he trashed someone else’s copy. It never had a quote from a Muslim saying “He took my copy and threw it in the toilet”.

    If this guy went out and bought a copy just to put it in the toilet, so what! It would be different if he set it on fire and then threw it at a Muslim, that I could see as a hate crime. At the most, he should be charged with littering in a public toilet : )

    Next time I go and see Penn and Teller, I plan on having them autograph a blank page in a bible, is that considered a hate crime or even vandalism? If so, too bad.

  • Guest Poster

    Aimee,

    My mistake, I thought the article was saying that he took the library’s copy, but I misread it so I retract my last comment about him deserving to be prosecuted for vandalism (as long as the book was his, of course). You’re right…if someone owns a book, regardless of significance of the book, they’re free to do whatever they want to it. I wouldn’t try to say otherwise.

  • UCrawford

    That last comment was me, of course.

  • http://www.lunchworks.net Jeff Molby

    It would be different if he set it on fire and then threw it at a Muslim, that I could see as a hate crime.

    No, that would be assault and battery.

    Like Stephen said, we really don’t need nebulous concepts like “hate crime”.

  • Aimee

    Jeff,

    My point was that my example of setting it on fire and throwing it at a Muslim would be more under the umbrella of what a hate crime is, or even assault and battery. More so than putting a book in a toilet, thats all.
    I agree with Stephen, “hate crime” needs to just go away all together.

  • Rick from england

    i just wanted to say that i whole heartedly agree with every last word you wrote
    i come from england where our labour government has gone soft on things they see as small and not worth any notice
    our freedom of speech has been stepped on and spat at so much that people are in fear of speaking their mind in case they are accused of racism.
    the problem is… those who are accused of racism are then subject to a number of equally racist abuse and plenty of vandalism thrown in for good measure

    a few years ago a government party known as the National Front (NF) marched through my town of Oldham demonstrating, quite within their right to, against immigration laws and the loss of true british culture, they were attacked by muslim youths and, when they fought back, they were locked up for racial violence.

    i would not be suprised if America is soon headed in the same direction and i pray for you all that you are not left with a nation, like mine, which is well and truly buggered beyond belief