Calling the NJ Transit worker who was fired for burning pages from the Quran outside the proposed mosque near Ground Zero a “self-centered, irresponsible person who would put American lives in jeopardy without thinking,” New Jersey Senator Raymond J. Lesniak said that such actions, however, do not reflect on his ability to do his job and he should not have been fired for it.
“We need to keep our heads while others are losing theirs,” said Senator Lesniak, D-Union. “Mr. Fenton needs a good talking to by community and religious leaders, not a one way ticket to unemployment.”
On Saturday, Derek Fenton, a 39-year-old man from Bloomingdale, NJ who had worked for NJ Transit for the last 11 years, staged a protest at the site of a proposed mosque near Ground Zero, tearing out and burning pages from the Quran in protest of the September 11 terrorist attacks. On Monday, Fenton was fired from his job as an assistant train coordinator after photos of his protest appeared in a newspaper. The official word from NJ Transit, through a statement from the agency, is that Mr. Fenton was fired for violating NJ Transit’s code of ethics.
“So long as his actions, however misguided, took place on his own time, and he was not acting in his capacity as a representative of NJ Transit but as an American exercising his Constitutional rights, then the agency is clearly in the wrong,” said Senator Lesniak. “We live in a country that was built on the principles of freedom of expression, and our democracy would crumble if individuals believed the government could penalize them for expressing views which, while offensive, do not rise to the level of illegal. New Jersey as an employer should play no part in penalizing someone for exercising their Constitutional rights.”
Senator Lesniak noted that the protest of burning the Quran on September 11 was the brainchild of ultra-conservative Florida pastor Terry Jones. However, after Pastor Jones gained media attention for his efforts to make September 11 “International Burn a Quran Day,” General David Petraeus said that the display had the potential for being dangerous to US troops serving in Afghanistan, and that it would be detrimental to efforts to stabilize the country.
Senator Lesniak noted that the first amendment stands as a protection for politically or socially unpopular expressions, even more than it does for popularly-held beliefs. He pointed to the 1989 Supreme Court decision in the case of Texas vs. Johnson, in which Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan wrote, “If there is a bedrock principle of the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
“While we have every right to disagree with intolerant and misguided speech, we have no right to prohibit such speech,” said Senator Lesniak. “Mr. Fenton’s actions were irresponsible, but should be protected under our Constitution.”