I’ve written many times about the free speech problems in Dearborn, Michigan, where Christian evangelists have been arrested multiple times for proselytizing at the International Arab Festival, attended predominately by Muslims. Unfortunately, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the arrests in one case.
Police didn’t violate the First Amendment when they threatened to ticket Christian evangelists at an Arab-American street festival in Dearborn, an appeals court said Wednesday in a 2-1 decision that drew dissent from a judge who called it a “blueprint” to stifle speech.
Members of a group called Bible Believers were pelted with water bottles and rocks while carrying a pig’s head and telling Muslims they were “sick” and would “burn in hell” for their beliefs.
Wayne County authorities said they were concerned about unrest and threatened to ticket the evangelists unless they left the fair in June 2012. They walked away but were subsequently ticketed for traveling in a van without a license plate.
“The video from the 2012 festival demonstrates that (evangelists’) speech and conduct intended to incite the crowd to turn violent. … Although robustly guarded by the First Amendment, religious conduct remains subject to regulation for the protection of society,” the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said.
The sheriff’s office was “regulating the safety of the festival attendees,” not “religious conduct,” Judges Bernice Donald and Samuel Mays Jr. said in affirming the dismissal of a lawsuit against county authorities.
This is a clear heckler’s veto, breaching the principle that “hostile public reaction does not cause the forfeiture of the constitutional protection afforded a speaker’s message so long as the speaker does not go beyond mere persuasion and advocacy of ideas [but rather] attempts to incite to riot.”
If you think this decision is correct, imagine for a moment that the speakers were atheist rather than Christian and those atheists were telling people that the Quran preaches violence and hatred, garnering a similar hostile response. Would you think the same thing then? Or does your view of the case change when it involves Christians rather than atheists? Because the legal principle is exactly the same. Judge Clay is right, this is a classic heckler’s veto — all you have to do to get someone’s free speech rights taken away is to react violently to that speech.
What should have happened here is that those who were threatening violence and throwing objects at the Christians should have been arrested and the Christians should have been protected by the police. That is the job of the government, to protect those exercising their rights against those who would use violence to shut them down.