Pennsylvania District Judge Mark Martin needs to review his First Amendment law a little more carefully. Ernie Perce, an atheist who marched in a Halloween parade last year dressed as “zombie Mohammed,” was before Judge Martin after he alleged he was attacked by Talaag Elbayomy, a Muslim who took action after he witnessed Perce’s costume.
Perce wore a turban and a long, fake beard and painted his face green. During the parade, he yelled the phrases “I am the prophet Mohammed! Zombie from the dead!” He marched with another protestor, who was dressed as a zombie pope, carrying a banner that read, “The Parading Atheists of Central Pennsylvania: Ghoulish, Godless, God-awful.” According to Perce, Elbayomy attacked him, and Elbayomy was charged with harassment.
Judge Martin dismissed the charges against Elbayomy and scolded Perce, telling the protestor he had been insensitive. He also called Perce a “doofus.”
“You have that right, but you’re way outside your bounds of First Amendment rights,” Martin said, according to CNN. “I think our forefathers intended that we use the First Amendment so that we can speak our mind, not to piss off other people and other cultures, which is what you did.”
To the contrary, our forefathers intended that all U.S. citizens be allowed to criticize anyone they chose. The very first American citizens often criticized Great Britain, who they viewed as overly oppressive to the colonists. You can bet that the Brits were none too happy about that. The purpose of the First Amendment is to ensure that all people are protected when expressing their views, even if such views are unpopular. As GW Law professor Jonathan Turley pointed out, “People like Thomas Paine spent his entire life ticking off people across the colonies.” Another founding father, Thomas Jefferson, was hostile to the Catholic Church and criticized it often.
Perce was within his right to express his religious beliefs as an atheist, and if Elbayomy had expressed his dissent in a non-violent manner, he would have also been within his right. Sure, the thrust of the First Amendment isn’t to promote behavior that offends other people, but that is beside the point. Just because Perce offended Elbayomy did not give Elbayomy free license to assault Perce.
Judge Martin’s rationale for dismissing the charges against Elbayomy most certainly should not have been because Perce intended to “piss off other people and other cultures.” This is exactly the sort of thing the First Amendment was intended to protect against. Yes, Perce’s costume was offensive to Elbayomy, but it didn’t rise to the level of fighting words—there were no “personally abusive epithets” required by Cohen v. California. Judge Martin should not have let Elbayomy off the hook for assault just because Perce said something he personally didn’t like.
Judge Martin could learn a thing or two by looking back again at what the First Amendment actually protects.