Australian Atheist Learns that Free Speech Doesn’t Mean Much if Religious People Claim Hurt Feelings

The practical problem with attempting to suppress a particular form of speech is that it tends to be counterproductive; stomp on one freethinker or rebellious individual and more tend to take their place. Combine that with the ease of reaching a mass audience in the internet age and the foolishness of frantic overreaction to a non-violent protest, like, say, burning a Koran, becomes readily apparent.

That is, if you’re reasonable. It looks like the administration at Queensland University of Technology is anything but.

A quick recap of events: QUT lawyer (apparently he works on contracts) Alex Stewart is an Atheist, somewhat active in a Brisbane organization of likeminded people. After hearing of the mass hysteria resulting from the small, non-violent planned (and eventually cancelled) protest of one Florida man at his tiny church, Stewart decided to do some burning of his own.

However, unlike Terry Jones, he seems to have a sense of humor, and wanted to do it for a ‘good purpose’, and so he engaged in a bit of Mythbusters-esque testing to determine which made for better rolling papers, pages from a Koran, or a Bible.

(Not that this is the first time I’ve heard of using a Bible for that purpose; far from it.)

Taking things a step further, he filmed the whole ‘experiment’, along with a genial discussion of the merits of religious literature, and put it up on Youtube.

Nobody was hurt. Nobody was killed. The Earth didn’t fly off its axis, the Sun didn’t explode, and despite this prodding, God did not make himself physically manifest or smite Mr. Stewart for his cheek. The entire event occurred in the privacy of Stewart’s home, in his off hours, with books that he himself owned.

No crime was committed. (Don’t believe me? Fair enough. Click this link and watch the embedded video/news report; at about 55 seconds in, a spokesman for the Queensland police makes clear that it is not an offense to burn ANY book in Australia)

Yet Stewart found himself at the center of a firestorm. Depending on which press account you believe, he was either ‘hauled’ before the QUT administration or met with them voluntarily, and has in any case been placed on administrative leave while they decide whether he gets to keep his job and ‘investigate all aspects of Mr. Stewart’s behavior." Meanwhile the local press is staging hit pieces and hatchet jobs on the man, stalking him with cameras and talking up the ‘collateral damage’ he caused with a goofy Youtube video.

Keep in mind, again, that the police have already stated for the record that burning the pages was completely legal under Australian law.

So if Stewart didn’t break Aussie law, why is his job in jeopardy? Why is QUT, a public university, harassing an employee for a legal form of protest in which no one was injured, let alone killed, and the books burned were the property of Mr. Stewart?

As far as I can tell from their public statements, it’s because he hurt the feelings of religious people, and that’s something That Simply Is Not Done.

Check out the statement their Vice-Chancellor (and humorless blowhard) gave to the press:

QUT vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake moved to distance the university from its employee.

"QUT does not condone the destruction of any religious artefacts. This was a personal view and action expressed in the person’s own time," Professor Coaldrake said.

"[Mr Stewart] does not associate himself with QUT in the clip.

"QUT is tolerant of all religions and welcomes staff and students from many countries to our university and regularly celebrates their cultures and religions."

A personal view, expressed on personal time, with no endorsement claimed by Stewart from the University for his actions.. and yet he’s put on leave, pending an investigation.

But they’re tolerant of all ‘religions’ at QUT, so bashing, even suspending Atheists for legal speech is apparently within their mandate.

Globally, the mass uprising against Koran burning has yet to occur, though as Professor Cole notes over at his blog, the Taliban, lovely people that they are, have seen fit to demagogue on these peaceful and legal activities to their own benefit:

Saturday witnessed a second wave of demonstrations against the threats by small American fundamentalist churches (especially the Dove Outreach group of some 50 in Gainesville, Fl.), to burn copies of the Muslim holy book, the Quran, on September 11. News that the planned bonfire of the scripture had been called off did not reach the provinces in time to avert the rallies, which were sparked in part by Taliban pamphleteering against the US.

But it seems clear to me in any case that the threat of Quran-burning by a few dozen kooks in the US is only a pretext for these demonstrations, which inevitably are actually about the grievances of Afghans under foreign military occupation.

Wait, you mean.. this tempest in a teapot is being used by unscrupulous religious zealots to make names for themselves? I never would have guessed!

As usual, PZ Myers, himself an experienced destroyer of so-called ‘Holy’ items, has been out in front of this whole series of overreactions to peaceful protest:

Informing me that the Muslims are genuinely and sincerely and deeply offended is not informative — contrary to the suggestion that I must have an empathy deficit to be unaware of that, I know that and appreciate the fact that their feelings are hurt and they are angry and outraged. My point is that I don’t care, and neither should anyone else. The Abrahamic religions are all about fostering that feeling of oppression, even when it isn’t there, and hearing yet another one of the more deranged members of the People of the Book whine that we show insufficient respect for their mythology gives me the same feeling of exasperation I felt when my small children would wail about not getting a candy bar in the grocery store. Fine, you can be mad about your deprivation, but that does not obligate me to serve your whims.

I’ve seen enough videos of Middle Eastern protesters setting American flags on fire that I do have to wonder…how would they feel if we informed those countries that people who disrespect the United States ought to be arrested and their demonstrations shut down by force? The people Jones has offended feel no compunction about offending other Americans right back — and that’s OK. It is not a crime to offend others, and in fact, it’s pretty much a natural consequence of having diverse cultures.

I highly recommend you read the whole thing; it’s that good.

So where does this leave us? Hard to say. Western nations with free speech guarantees are buckling in the face of hurt feelings and vague, poorly defined threats of violence, compromising their most fundamental principles because, well, there aren’t that many Atheists/malcontents and they’re easier to kick around, I guess. One thing’s for certain, though; the Stewart case shows us, with crystal clarity, that protests of this sort are going to continue, one way or another, so as a society we’d be better-served coming to grips with that reality instead of shutting our eyes and hoping against hope that the irreligious (or in Jones’ case, hyper-religious) will swallow their pride and give up their rights and their ideas without a fight.

Or, you know, funny Youtube videos.

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