Atheist v Muslim
An atheist who appeared in a Halloween parade dressed as the Prophet Muhammad while shouting provacative phrases was allegedly assaulted by a Muslim. The case has taken a turn for the controversial when the judge in the case dismissed the charges citing a lack of evidence. In dismissing the case, however, the judge admonished the alleged victim for being needlessly provocative on an issue sensitive with Muslims. Critics of this decision have accused the judge of siding with Islam or at the very least of not protecting the rights of atheists.
This appears to me to be a question of whether blatantly offensive speech negates an individual’s right to be free from physical violence. It is a question I find difficult to answer because, while I strongly support the right to free speech, I also believe that there is a certain level of speech which is sometimes referred to as “fightin’ words”. For example, I think that if I were to walk up to a married couple and say to the woman “I would like to f*** you right in the mouth”, I am inviting physical violence upon myself. If I wind up busted up in the ensuing chaos I think the police, prosecuting attorney, and judge of any potential court case would be correct in turning away any effort on my part to initiate legal action for the trouble I invited. My only real question in the case of this atheist v Muslim is whether this particular incident rises to this standard.
The question as to whether or not people have the right to offend each other is moot. In a society where free speech is the standard, we have the right to offend each other all day. The real questions are:
In addressing the first question, I find myself thinking of my own behavior. Personally I would never specifically go out of my way to offend someone’s religious sensibilities unless that person had used their religion to insult me first. The one exception I can think of is the time some Jehovah’s Witness walked up to me and tried to hand me an issue of The Watchtower and I replied “No thanks, I’m already in a cult”, but even then the offense on my part was minor and in my opinion warranted. If someone does use their religion to attack me, I believe I am within my rights to attack their religion, even to the point of insensitivity, blatant offense, and theologically dismantling their theological tenets piece by piece. There are times, however, when my insensitive counter to an offensive attack by a Christian might have resulted in offense to other Christians within earshot (or blogshot) who had done me no ecclesiastial wrong. It is for this reason that I would be very careful in labeling a religious offense as a blanket provocation to violence. I do not want to live in a world where religious debate is considered an invitation to physical violence, especially since the person giving offense might have simply been responding to offense that was given by the other side first.
In short, I believe that all people have the right to be free from physical violence but I also believe that if you goad another person to violence either through boorish behavior or intentional offense, you should basically live with the result and that seeking judicial action against the other side in such a case is in poor taste. I state this as a matter of street credibility an ethics, not as a matter of law (it is also important to note that this in no way is to be construed as a justification of death threats such as those which were lodged against the creators of Southpark after the Muhammad episodes which I consider to be extreme overreaction which should be taken seriously and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law). The above case strikes me as a case of intentional provocation which is akin to saying the n word, chink, or Barbara Streisand in public and I think it’s like pissing on a flag at a NASCAR event. Whether or not one has the legal right to do these things, I think they are all terrible ideas and I think if someone happens to get roughed up as a result of something like this one should be prepared for the possibility that the ensuing case might very well be dismissed. Theoretically you have the right. As a practical matter, a court might not care to pursue it. I file this one under ‘assumption of risk’.