Koran burnings by Westerners are rightly frowned upon, but more regrettable is the trend of investigating, arresting, and even prosecuting those who set them aflame. Consider the cases to make the news since a Florida pastor first promised to torch Korans on the anniversary of 9/11.
Examples from the United States:
In September, the East Lansing Police Department offered a $10,000 reward for information about the person responsible for leaving a charred Koran outside a Michigan mosque. An individual surrendered, but the prosecutor shelved the case because "there is no criminal offense that I can charge under Michigan law."
In December, Jesse Quinn Harrison of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was charged with a hate crime for allegedly sending an "intimidating" letter to a mosque and uploading a video in which a Koran and pork chops are grilled, placed on a bun, and fed to a dog. Prosecutors claimed that the video intends to "produce violence directed to others because of their religious beliefs." Harrison was held at a mental facility before charges were dropped.
Examples from Europe:
In September, several self-described "English nationalists" were arrested on suspicion of inciting racial hatred for allegedly posting a video of them burning a Koran behind a pub in Gateshead, Tyneside. Due to insufficient evidence, no charges were brought.
In October, French police arrested an individual from Bischheim, Bas-Rhin, over an online video that "shows a man tearing off a page of the Koran, making a paper plane, and throwing it onto two glasses representing the World Trade Center. The man then burns the page and urinates onto its ashes." The citation against him for promoting racial hatred has been dismissed due to procedural errors, but a new hearing may be imminent.
In November, UK police arrested a teenage girl on suspicion of inciting religious hatred for allegedly burning a Koran on the premises of her West Midlands school, videotaping the incident, and posting it online. Despite the Crown Prosecution Service claiming "sufficient evidence" to move the case forward, it decided not to pursue charges.
In January, UK police arrested a man in Carlisle, Cumbria, who allegedly was "making pronouncements against the Muslim religion in front of a large crowd" and then "set fire to the Koran he was holding." He was arrested for "using racially aggravated threatening words or behavior" and has been released on bail as the investigation continues.
Yes, those taken into custody for burning Korans often escape charges, but why are they being detained in the first place? Does not true Western freedom imply the ability to express unpopular and even offensive views — without the risk of an involuntary trip to the police station?
April 11, 2011, Update: A BNP candidate for the Welsh assembly was detained for allegedly recording himself burning a Koran, but charges were soon dropped.
April 12, 2011, Update: Merely announcing plans to burn a Koran, but not actually burning it, resulted in legal charges against three Hindu men in Switzerland; they have been acquitted.
April 12, 2011, Update: The Islam in Europe blog has a useful summary of current trials.
April 18, 2011, Update: The UK Telegraph reports: "A convicted racist who burned a Koran in front of city centre shoppers has been jailed for 70 days after a judge described the act as 'theatrical bigotry.'"