Yesterday, FIRE took public one of its more outrageous cases: that of San Francisco State University (SFSU), where the College Republicans are to stand trial for stomping on Hamas and Hezbollah flags during a protest. The specific “offenses?” “Incitement” and creating a “hostile environment.”
Now, it’s well-known to just about everyone with any knowledge of the First Amendment that burning an American flag is protected political expression. We have to assume that SFSU knows this too, and has managed to reason out that if you can cause whatever damage you like to an American flag, you can certainly do the same to the flags of Hamas, Hezbollah, or any other country or organization. So, when Debra Saunders of the San Francisco Chronicle asked SFSU spokesperson Ellen Griffin why the complaint was being pursued, she got this answer: “I don’t believe the complaint is about the desecration of the flag. I believe that the complaint is the desecration of Allah.”
Yes, you heard it here first: an American public university has put students on trial for “desecrating” the Islamic word for God. This sets a truly horrifying precedent. SFSU has actually managed to reinstitute the blasphemy laws of the past, and apply them not just to religious speech (you may not say anything disrespectful towards a god or gods) but to political speech as well (disrespectful political expression intertwined with religious expression is off limits). In fact, SFSU has actually put in place a regime in which the Hamas and Hezbollah flags would receive more protection than the flag of our own nation, simply because they bear the name of a religious figure.
Some have asked FIRE if we would have taken this case if the students had known that they were stomping on the word “Allah” while stomping on the Hezbollah and Hamas flags. The answer is an unequivocal “yes!” If the students had simply written “ALLAH” or the name of any other religious figure in huge letters on a banner 20 feet high, we would still take the case. In a free society, the government has no place regulating what private citizens may or may not say about religion. Period. However, the fact that the College Republicans didn’t even know they were committing the “offense” they are charged with makes this case all the more ridiculous, and highlights the peril in punishing religious offenses through a secular process. Religion is one of mankind’s greatest mysteries. Do we really want state university administrators acting as a new religious court?