Troubling news over the weekend: a former student at Pace University in New York has been arrested for hate crimes for allegedly placing a Koran in a toilet on two occasions. While treating the Koran in this way could obviously anger the Muslim community, the arrest seems to be completely at odds with well-established Supreme Court precedent. As we explained in the San Francisco State University case, the Constitution protects the right to engage in symbolic and political speech—including the right to burn an American flag or to burn crosses as political expression. The Constitution, furthermore, does not allow the state to impose on Americans the norms of any particular religion.
In this case, after taking Islamic religious norms (which venerate the Koran as a physical object) out of the picture, one is left with accusations that someone attempted to flush a book—hardly a detainable offense under most circumstances. Yes, the former student may be accused of vandalism, as anyone might be for stuffing a toilet, or for destruction of property if the Koran is not his own, but a hate crime? In New York’s efforts to enforce laws that impose notions of tolerance, the Constitution seems to have been flushed as well.
Symbolic speech is protected speech even if it angers and offends entire religious groups: the Constitution offers no special exception for the holy books of any religion. This is true whether that book is the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or the Tao te Ching. FIRE is looking into the matter, but given that this is a criminal case it looks as though the accused student badly needs a top-notch attorney. Stay tuned…
Schools: Pace University