By Wilhelmina Maboja
Weeks before the ninth anniversary of the September 11th World Trade Centre bombing in New York City, Reverend Terry Jones, leader of a small church in Florida, threatened to publically burn the Qur’an on the day of the anniversary this month. He even went as far as to name his proceedings as an ‘International Burn a Qur’an Day’ event.
With Constitution week happening this month on campus, such an action begs the question: At what point does one’s expressive actions and views amount to blatant discrimination or inciting violence?
The first amendment of the US Constitution deals with freedom of assembly, petition and speech. It stipulates that the law is prohibited from denying one the right of these freedoms, though this protection is not absolute. Apart from the threat of burning the Qur’an, Reverend Terry has claimed Islam to be ‘evil’ and went as far as to write a novel, aptly named ‘Islam is of the Devil’. This clearly amounts to vilification but constitutionally, he seems to be protected as there is only potential of inciting violence. Though the burning of the Qur’an was eventually never carried, his radical attempt had Muslims from as far as Indonesia and Afghanistan burning images of the reverend in offence.
Though it is one man’s rightful exercise his constitutional freedom, such an action raises the question of whether there needs to be a limit to one’s expression, especially when it comes to another’s beliefs. Burning the Qur’an or any other religious text is a blatant attack and disrespect for a belief but if something as powerful as the Constitution cannot prevent such, the document becomes reduced to a mere idea.
Among other policies, the university has one on eradicating unfair discrimination and harassment. After sifting through all eleven pages of courtroom jargon, it declares that the university adopts a zero tolerance approach to the violation of one’s right to religion, race, belief, language, age or orientation through discrimination. Like the US Constitution and its many clauses, the line between expression and hate speech becomes blurred. If students decide to burn their bras protesting the incredibly large ratio of women to men in the university, they can either be arrested on the grounds of offending and thereby discriminating men. Similarly, the women themselves can defend themselves by claiming that it is university policy that protects them from carrying around flaming pieces of lace and ribbon.
With the wrath of the Media Tribunal upon us, some are starting to question the purpose of journalism education and independent news if such regulations are implemented. If government pushes the bill forward, our country is no different to the Stalinist Russia of media censorship by the state. As if policing one’s thoughts and right to information is not enough, the line between freedom of expression and inciting violence becomes blurred and as long as one’s actions can potentially incite violence, even the most radical can confidently use the Constitution as a breastplate against the arrows of public outcry.
This article was originally written for The Oppidan Press campus newspaper, Rhodes University.