Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Koran burning: US and Europe have different ideas on free speech

The US military is still struggling to quell violence across Afghanistan and elsewhere caused by a Florida pastor's public burning of the Koran. The burning, which took place on 20 March, came months after the same pastor had decided to cancel his first planned book-burning after everyone from senior US military figures to President Obama told him not to do it. They said such a burning would incite violence across the Arab world and put US troops in danger.

In the end, he went ahead and did it anyway. So far at least one US military death is thought to be linked to the protests sparked by the Koran burning, but of course this is difficult to prove directly But throughout all of the warning issued to the pastor by the US military and politicians in the run-up to the burning everyone was keen to stress one thing – though the burning would put the lives of US troops at risk, the pastor had every legal right to burn the Koran under the freedom of speech entitled to him by the first amendment of the US constitution. So, the pastor faces no legal consequence for the Koran-burning he staged. And he is now planning more burnings starting on Good Friday in Michigan.

Contrast this to how a similar incident was handled across the pond in the UK. A man staged a public burning of the Koran at a shopping centre in Carlisle on 19 January. He was arrested, and yesterday a judge sentenced the man to 70 days in jail for religiously aggravated harassment. The judge called his stunt "theatrical bigotry".

In Britain, as in most countries in Europe, it is possible to be arrested for 'inciting racial hatred'. In fact this man had already served time for making racist proclamations. He's had six public order convictions over the past eight years for various offenses including racial chanting at a football match.

Two similar actions, but two very different outcomes. In Europe, while the legal concept of a freedom of speech does exist, it is far less sacrosanct than in the United States. In America, restrictions on speech are extremely limited and usually only apply to speech that results in direct harm. The famous example used by the Supreme Court is shouting "Fire!" in a crowded movie theatre when no fire exists.

In Europe the bar is set much lower, perhaps because they have had not-so-distant bad experiences with out of control racist speech. Hate speech is a criminal offense in most Western European countries. In Germany it is still illegal to display the Nazi flag or to give a Nazi salute. In the US, the idea that a hand gesture could be illegal is inconceivable. In the UK, slander laws are extremely strict.

It's just one of the many differences that separate laissez-faire America from statist Europe (to use crude generalities). But it's one that manifests itself in interesting ways in instances like this one.


al loomis said...

this is a 'who will guard against the guardians' problem.

if a government can imprison for speech, they will imprison speakers they don't want to hear.

better to let these people make their gesture, evaluate it, and discard it.

if some are enraged by speech, that's their failing.

Anonymous said...

In the US saying anything about Israel doesn't even need a law to destroy a person. You could be the President of the US and creatures in UFO's would be scared to fool with you but not a single person can even offer a mild criticism of Israel.

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EurAmerican said...

To Anonymous,

If you're looking for a mildly critical stance on the US and Israel, I encourage you to check out the mild post from 19 April on my blog, "EurAmerican: Transatlantic Politics & Culture"

Captain Kid said...

@al loomis:
a European gouvernment cannot imprison people they don't want to hear because our jurisdiction and executive powers are strictly separated.

Would you say the same if your grandfather died in a concentration camp just because he lived in a society where some idiots were "free" to tell lies about minorities?

nychumanrights said...

Have you come across any instances in Europe where someone has burned the Quran (or tried to) and his or her freedom of expression was protected? In other words, no criminal charges were filed against them but soft power measures were used, similar to what was seen in the US.