I thought about fire

(Picture from the independent.co.uk)

Recently, freedom of speech has been headlining many newspapers around the world. The most notorious case was that of Florida pastor Terry Jones, who had threatened to publicly burn copies of the Koran. The pastor drew attention of the whole world because he was organizing the international “Burn a Koran Day” with his church. The picture above is an example of the reaction provoked by the threat. The reaction seems for many unbalanced and, despite of it, the representatives of United States said they could not stop the pastor going on with his plans(even if the local authority has denied him the permission to burn the Koran in his initially planned space).

In the United States freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech”. In the United States the right to freedom of speech is almost sacred. While in many countries it is limited, for instance the prohibition to proselytism in some Muslim countries and the prohibition in denying the holocaust in some European countries, in the United States it is a sacrosanct right. The only limit in the United States is when the speech incites direct violence. In the case of the pastor the State couldn’t do anything but ask him to give up on his plans[1]. Some argued that the state should intervene, saying that the pastor didn’t have a license to make a fireplace, however that would not stop the fire and all the reactions that would take place all around the world.

The pastor eventually gave up but some people went on with their plans to burn holy books. In the case of the Australian lawyer from a group called Brisbane Atheists, a video was posted on Youtube of the individual smoking pages of the Bible and the Koran and commenting which of them burn better. A lot of people have done the same in the past, but since the recent events in the United States, and the growing awareness of these acts in the Muslim world, there is a greatly increased threat in the Western world, which led to the exposure of the lawyer[2]. The video where he smokes holy books was removed from Youtube and the lawyer will, most likely, lose his job for doing such a thing.

Many questions were raised after that episode, in particular the issue of burning holy books, the problem of radical minorities having space in the media and others. Nevertheless, the question that intrigues me the most is the balance between what is protected and what is not. Who sets this limit? Why burning the Koran or denying the holocaust issues of greater sensitivity than, for instance, burning other holy symbols. I believe that the protests burning religious symbols or flags are offensive and they should not be encouraged, however they also show how fragile the right to the freedom of speech is. The preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims freedom of speech as the highest aspiration of the common people, but that seems true only for some people. There is a limitation in the article 20 of the ICCPR on freedom of expression but I don’t believe that most of the limitations some groups raise would fall into those limitations. I agree with the previous Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, Asma Jahangir, who said that the threshold to limit the right to freedom of expression must be high[3]. However my point is that it seems that there is a double standard where some things are limited and some are not. “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than the others”.


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