This is my most recent Greenville News column, concerning free speech.  Does it exist anymore?  Maybe not…


Where do we draw the line between our public and our private lives? It’s a difficult question in an era of constant electronic communication. We certainly seem hell-bent on making our lives public; and I’m not throwing stones since I live in a big glass house. From blogs to Facebook, MySpace to Twitter, texting to sexting, we seem eager as a culture for our actions, our images and our ideas to fly across the world to others, eager to view them, eager to love or hate us; but who will at least see us and rescue us from anonymity.

There is no question that these are perilous times for privacy and good taste. Men and women have lost jobs and opportunities over images posted online of their ‘extracurricular’ activities. They have been arrested for inadvertently violating subtle interpretations of pornography laws (and not-so-subtle ones). What we see, and how we are seen, matters.

Nevertheless the constitution remains, for now, in place. So we must address the sticky question of Derek Fenton, the New Jersy transit worker who, on 9-11-10, burned some pages of the Quran in front of Park 51, site of the controversial New York mosque.

Derek Fenton, on his day off, and in a state not his own, in civilian clothes, unidentifiable as a New Jersey State employee, burned those pages in protest. The following, Monday, he was fired since he had been seen on the news committing the act. Ironically, his employers appear to have burnt the first amendment in response.

Pay attention here; a US citizen was fired for burning a book. Now, I love books. Further, I find the burning of books to be, quite frankly, silly. The idea does not give me sudden hypertension. I don’t weep over burnt books. Honestly, I have read some books that might as well have been burnt so that someone could enjoy the heat, or light, or at least cook something in order that a tree didn’t die entirely in vain. Still, book burning (unless it happens on the level of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451) is mostly theatrics. Especially now, when most books are also e-books, and it is thus-far difficult to burn down the entire Internet.

So, I have never been in favor of burning the Quran. I know, and have known, many of those who revere the Quran. One was an early medical mentor of mine; a Muslim cardio-thoracic surgeon in my home-town, whose professionalism and kindness I will always remember. While I take issue with Islamic theology as put forth in the Quran, I do so without any intent to ignite anything more than debate. I was not in favor of the threatened Quran burning in Florida, either. I find such drama boring and counterproductive.

However, many persons feel a deep need to burn things. Bras were burnt in the sixties. And for shear conflagration, the flag of the United States has been ablaze over and over, by enemies and citizens; so much so that the act is considered protected free speech in the US (and a holiday in certain other countries).

Furthermore, burning the Bible is positively passe. No one really cares anymore, except those of us who happen to love the Bible. But burning one is mostly met with a yawn by the media and law-enforcement.

Some years ago, artist Robert Mapplethorpe (NEA sponsored) felt that placing a photo of a crucifix in urine would really make an artistic point. While many were offended, pleas of First Amendment freedoms and artistic expression abounded. No one was, to my knowledge, fired for that foray into bad taste.

New Jersey felt that Mr. Fenton violated their employee code of ethics. Fine; but where does that end? This is especially interesting as we come to the end of the ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ era in the US military. At what point does our work life end and our private life begin? More important, at what point are we free to express individual opinions, which stand in contrast to those of our employers, without fear of dismissal?

Talk about a ‘chilling effect on free speech!’ We should really wring our hands over this one. Because it portends some terrifying trends. That government can ignore freedom of religion and expression for political correctness. That the now deeply ingrained desire to protect Islam has made Islam tantamount to a federally favored religion. And worst of all, that as long as a camera or crowd is present, we are no longer free if there is any danger offending. Unless we offend people who really don’t matter.

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