Fired for free speech
Too bad Derek Fenton didn’t burn an American flag instead of pages from the Koran. He might still have a job.
NJTransit fired the 39-year-old railroad worker this week after he was filmed setting fire to ripped pages from the Muslim holy book during a 9/11-anniversary protest at the site of the proposed mosque and Islamic center.
The transit agency said only that Fenton, an 11-year veteran, was terminated because he “violated New Jersey Transit’s code of ethics” and “his trust as a state employee.”
This, despite the fact that he was off-duty, not in uniform and not presenting or identifying himself as an NJTransit employee at the time. And, as the US Supreme Court has affirmed, had Fenton burned an American flag, he’d be fully protected under the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.
Which is why groups like the American Civil Liberties Union — traditionally zealous protectors of First Amendment rights — say that burning a Koran should qualify, as well.
Now, we don’t happen to think that public burnings are an appropriate, not to mention effective, means of political protest — whether they involve holy books or the American flag.
But there can’t be two standards.
If, as the courts have said, flag-burning is protected, then Fenton should be within his rights to burn pages of the Koran, however politically incorrect that might be. Certainly, it shouldn’t be grounds for losing his job — particularly since he wasn’t acting in any way that could identify him as an NJTransit employee.