If you haven’t heard about it, a free speech controversy is about ready to erupt that is going to make the Mohamed cartoon imbroglio look like a walk around the Ka’aba.
A 23 year old and Ukranian immigrant, Stanislav Shmulevich of Brooklyn, has been charged with two felony counts for throwing a Koran into a toilet on two separate occasions. The incidents occurred last year when Shmulevich was a senior at Pace University in New York. He left school a couple of credits short of graduating and now works for an international banking firm in New York city.
There are a couple of aspects to this matter that need clarification before a definitive judgment can be made about Shmulevich’s actions. First, what was his intent? If it was to show his disgust for the Islamic faith and knowingly hurt Muslims by tossing what they see as the word of God into a toilet, he should definitely be criticized as an ignorant lout.
But a felon? And this is where the second missing piece of information that will allow us to judge the situation rationally comes into play; just what is it the prosecutor hopes to accomplish?
Ignoramus or not, the fellow was making a statement expressing his beliefs. And Michelle Malkin (in what is sure to be the most controversial post of the day) asks the right question. Using some powerful visual examples, she wonders “Which of these is a crime in America?”
A) Submerging a crucifix in a jar of urine.
B) Burning the American flag.
C) Putting a Koran in a toilet.
And yes, she has a picture of a Koran in a toilet.
Michelle will no doubt be vilified by the usual suspects who will almost certainly miss her larger point for posting such a disturbing image. Malkin haters don’t do nuance nor do they grant Michelle the same luxury of being a controversialist as they do their own rabble rousers on the left.
The crucifix in urine is but one example of the outrageous anti-Christian “art” that has been shown over the last decade or so. What was the “intent” of the artist in creating such a display? Nothing less than to knowingly inflict emotional pain on those who believe in Christ as God. Artistic expression is rightly protected under the first amendment. But if we are going to use the standard of a Koran in the toilet provoking the exact same reaction among Muslims as the crucifix in urine did to Christians, why does one form of expression get a pass and the other doesn’t?
Isn’t this what the first amendment was created to protect? It doesn’t matter that your idea of free speech is different than mine. The first amendment guarantee is that all speech (with very limited exceptions) – yours, mine, and Mr. Shmulevich – is protected regardless of its affect on others.
Or it was anyway. Now we have “hate crime” statutes where we ask prosecutors, judges, and juries to play at being psychic in order to reach into the mind of defendants and glean their “intent” in committing an act.
If that act is to do violence against someone for their race, creed, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation, the defendant is judged more harshly and receives a longer prison term for what was in his mind at the time he committed the crime. This may be an efficacious rationale for protecting the lives and health of minorities through deterrence although I have yet to see any statistics that would lead me to believe this is so. What disgusts me is the shameless pandering by politicians in passing hate crime legislation in the first place. Posturing to win votes by playing to the interests of special pleaders is not a good way to make law under any circumstances.
And Mr. Shmulevich’s case is a perfect example. Using hate crime legislation to deal with violence against another for who they are is one thing. But using the statute to prosecute people who offend someone’s beliefs? This is an entirely different kettle of fish for which we are about to have a much needed and long overdue debate.
Does one have a right not to be offended in America? Or are only certain groups granted that right? If I write “Muslim go home” on a bathroom wall at a Christan church, can I be tried for a hate crime? Or, if a Muslim spits on a bible and burns it, is he subject to the exact same standard of justice if it was a Christian doing the same thing?
Instead of over generalizing, let’s look at this specific case involving Mr. Shmulevich. He’s a devout Jew who actually defended the Koran when the first instance of its desecration came to light 10 months ago:
The suspect’s roommate in Gravesend, Brooklyn, said she was stunned by the charges.
“It’s impossible. He was defending the Koran,” said Ola Petrovich, 24, an online saleswoman. “We had that conversation. He said, ‘Don’t criticize the Koran if you haven’t read it.’
“Why would he do something so stupid?”
“He read the Koran,” she continued. “He was telling me, ‘You should read it.’ He’s Jewish, but he’s theologically sound. Both his parents are ballistic over this.”
The Korans Mr. Shmulevich threw in the toilet were school property taken from a “meditation room” on campus. Now I’m not a lawyer and will make no attempt to analyze the legal issues regarding this case. But Allah has the language of the statutes under which Mr. Shmulevich is being charged with a hate crime and to these layman’s eyes, it is perplexing to me why the prosecutor would be charging Mr. Shmulevich under either of these statutes. Instead, it appears to be a case where the prosecutor files more serious charges in hopes the defendant will plead to lesser ones.
Charge him with stealing the Korans, yes. Perhaps even charge him with a misdemeanor for vandalizing school property. But charging the man with two felony counts under dubious circumstances smacks of prosecutorial overkill.
Beyond the legal troubles of Mr. Shmulevich, there is the issue of double standards in the equal application of the law. Evidently, the law views artistic expression in a different light than other free speech issues. A crucifix in urine and putting a Koran in the toilet being done for the exact same reasons are evidently seen as separate matters all because the individual who placed the crucifix in urine says he is an artist and actually received grant money for the piece from the National Endowment for the Arts. In this case, “intent” becomes meaningless because the artist – Andres Serrano – is protected by virtue of tradition and law regarding art and the necessarily broad definition of it.
There is a strong sense among conservatives that this double standard is patently and grossly unfair. How can you protect one form of speech and prosecute another when the intent is similar? So far, there has been no case that I know of where a Muslim or anyone else has been prosecuted for desecrating the bible in this country although this fellow appears to have equalled Mr. Shmulevich’s act. I’m sure “Vile Blasphemer” would argue that he’s either engaging in satire or other forms of free expression that would protect him from the zealous prosecutor who is currently after Mr. Shmulevich. But does it really matter that much if Shmulevich was deadly serious in his protest? Suppose his defense is he was just trying to be funny? Are we to believe that this should be a mitigating factor when determining if a hate crime has been committed?
It seems to me we have not thought through all the ramifications of hate crime legislation of this type. When we skirt this close to punishing people for expressing their most passionately held beliefs – even if those beliefs offend – everyone loses a little freedom. Perhaps the statutes are drawn too broadly. In any event, an act such as that carried out by Stanislav Shmulevich must be seen in the same context we would view anyone exercising their rights granted under the first amendment. To do less, weakens the first amendment and consequently, our most cherished and fundamental freedoms.