Last October, Ernest Perce was marching in a Halloween parade in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, dressed up as a zombie version of the prophet Mohammed when he was physically confronted by Talaag Elbayomy, a Muslim immigrant who found his costume offensive. According to Perce, Elbayomy grabbed him, chocked him, and then tried to rip off the “Mohammed of Islam” sign that Pence wore around his neck. Elbayomy later admitted to a police officer on the scene that he had tried to grab the sign, believing that it was a crime in the United States to insult Mohammed. But when Pence brought criminal harassment charges against Elbayomy, the district judge, Judge Mark Martin, dismissed the case. More outrageously, he proceeded to lecture Perce in a stunningly ignorant fashion about his rights under the First Amendment. After claiming that the First Amendment was intended “so that we could speak what’s on our mind, not to piss off other people and cultures,” and informing Perce that in Muslim countries causing such offense to Islam “could be punished by death, and frequently is,” the judge in effect blamed Pence rather than his attacker. “You are way outside your bounds of First Amendment rights,” the judge concluded. Since then, the judge’s comments (which he does not deny making) have touched off a national firestorm of criticism and controversy. Perce, the Pennsylvania state director of American Atheists, joined Front Page to discuss his legal ordeal, the threat to free speech in the U.S., and the explosive reaction to the case.
FP: What message or messages do you think were sent by the judge’s decision to dismiss your case – and especially by his decision to chastise for you giving offense to Muslims?
EP: In my opinion, the message sent by the judge is that Muslims now have the absolute right to defend their religious beliefs, even if by means of force.
FP: In the course of berating you, the judge claimed that the American Founders did not mean for the First Amendment to be used to give offence but rather to speak one’s mind. Among other problems, that would seem to be a contradiction, since speaking one’s mind is liable to give offence. What did you make of his reasoning in this regard?
EP: At first, I didn’t believe what I was hearing. When I marched in the Halloween parade, it was in support of the right of free speech. I believe I have the right to tell the followers of Islam that, in this country, their religion can be mocked, and that the law protects that right. That is why we have a First Amendment. I believe the founders intended to protect speech that some – including the followers of Islam – may find offensive.
FP: Your case has certainly generated a great deal of media attention. What do you make of the discussion that it has generated, including the many defenses of your First Amendment rights from bloggers, journalists and law professors? Were there any reactions that stand out in your mind?
EP: The discussion that was and is generated was overwhelming. On the one hand, the death threats I received, and the vitriol from some of the bloggers, was insane. At the same time, I was encouraged by the fact that many people who understand the law, including many law professors, were on my side. Most of all, I took heart in the fact that I knew I was not breaking any law when I dressed up as Zombie Mohammed. In fact, I believe I was saying what many Americans wanted to but maybe were afraid to say: no religion is above mockery.