A judge in central Pennsylvania sparked a storm of controversy when he dismissed a harassment charge against a Muslim man who attacked Ernest Perce V, an atheist, at a Halloween parade last fall. Perce, a member of the “Parading Atheists of Central PA,” had decided to celebrate the holiday by dressing up as “Zombie Muhammad” accompanied by a “Zombie Pope.” At the parade, however, Perce alleged that he was attacked by a Muslim man named Talaag Elbayomy, who apparently tried to grab Perce’s sign and tugged at his fake beard. Perce also claims that Elbayomy tried to choke him.
In December, District Judge Mark Martin threw out the harassment charges. Though Perce has a grainy video of the encounter, it only features a lot of yelling with no footage of the encounter. Martin ruled that it was one man’s word against another’s, but then went on to lecture Perce, saying that Elbayomy had the right to stand up for his religion.
“I think our forefathers intended to use the First Amendment so we can speak with our mind, not to piss off other people and cultures which is what you did,” Martin told Perce.
The issue resurfaced earlier this week, when Perce posted audio from the trial online. Since then, Martin’s office has been so inundated with threatening calls that he had to temporarily move his office up the road. Critics of his decision are alleging that he made his judgment based on a “Shari’a” defense, because some interpretations of Islamic law contend that respect for Islam trumps other free speech considerations. Part of the issue is the fact that many of the people threatening Martin believe that he is a convert to Islam (he’s a Christian), but others object to the substance of his judgment: that the First Amendment does not cover deliberately provocative speech.
Let’s be clear: Perce was not exercising common sense when he decided to dress up as “zombie Muhammad” and march through the streets of his town. That’s not nice. But neither is assault. The judge’s decision to throw out the harassment charge might have been more defensible if it had only been grounded in the lack of evidence. In expounding upon the relationship between cultural sensitivity and free speech, the judge opened himself to attack for muddling his decision.
Perce says that his status as an atheist played a part in the decision, and it’s true that Americans, overall, have less favorable views of atheists than they do of Muslims (although if you’re a Fox News viewer, you probably have pretty negative attitudes toward Muslims). But it’s unfortunate that this relatively minor incident is flaring up resentment against traditionally unpopular groups.
Photo from Vince Millett via flickr.