On August 27, a divided, three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued its ruling in Bible Believers v. Wayne County, affirming 2 to 1 a lower court decision dismissing a civil rights lawsuit brought by several Christian evangelists who were violently attacked by a hostile Muslim mob while preaching at an Arab festival in Dearborn, Michigan, which has the largest Muslim population in the United States. Video of the Muslim assault went viral on YouTube. The American Freedom Law Center (AFLC) is representing the Christian evangelists pro bono.
AFLC filed the lawsuit in September 2012 on behalf of the Christians against Wayne County, the Wayne County Sheriff, and two Wayne County Deputy Chiefs for not only refusing to protect the Christians from the attack but also for threatening to arrest the Christians for disorderly conduct if they did not halt their speech activity and immediately leave the festival area.
In 2013, Federal Judge Patrick J. Duggan, sitting in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, granted Wayne County’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the lawsuit. In his ruling, Judge Duggan stated that “the actual demonstration of violence here provided the requisite justification for [the Wayne County sheriffs’] intervention, even if the officials acted as they did because of the effect the speech had on the crowd.”
This decision was affirmed today by the Sixth Circuit. Circuit Judge Eric L. Clay issued a scathing dissent.
In his dissent, Judge Clay states, “The majority’s first error is its conclusion that the First Amendment did not protect [the Christians’] speech. This is not only wrong, it is dangerously wrong.” Judge Clay, hinting at the fact that Islamic law—sharia—punishes speech critical of Islam as blasphemous, states, “Moreover, the First Amendment strongly counsels that we should not allow the state to criminalize speech on the grounds that it is blasphemous—even so blasphemous that the average adherent to the offended religion would react with violence.”
Judge Clay further states, “Regrettably, law enforcement officers have a track record of chilling the free speech rights of proselytizers at the Festival,” citing to the case of Saieg v. City of Dearborn, which AFLC’s Co-Founder and Senior Counsel Robert J. Muise successfully argued before the Sixth Circuit.
Judge Clay continues, “The majority’s holding in this case effectively undermines this Circuit’s prior holdings which have sought to protect First Amendment interests in Dearborn under difficult circumstances.” He also notes that the majority’s ruling effectively “incentivize[s]” the “hecklers” to “get really rowdy, because at that point the target of their ire could be silenced.”
Judge Clay concludes his dissent as follows:
The majority misstates the law and misconstrues the facts to hand this case to Defendants. The First Amendment protects Plaintiffs’ speech . . . . As for the good faith defense, there are too many issues of fact to be resolved on summary judgment—especially on Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The majority retreats from our commitment in Saieg to the principle that the First Amendment cannot be shut out of the Festival, and by so doing provides a blueprint for the next police force that wants to silence speech without having to go through the burdensome process of law enforcement. I expect we will see this case again.
“The Sixth Circuit’s ruling is an unprecedented blow to the First Amendment. As Judge Clay stated quite accurately in his dissent, this decision is ‘dangerously wrong.’ But this fight is far from over. We will be filing a petition for en banc (full court) review of this important First Amendment case within the next two weeks. And if that petition is not granted, we will seek review in the U.S. Supreme Court.”
David Yerushalmi, AFLC Co-Founder and Senior Counsel, added:
“This decision is quite troubling and indeed dangerous, particularly in light of the fact that Muslim violence is escalating around the globe and here at home. The fact that the court’s decision rewards and thus encourages such violence as a legitimate means of suppressing speech that is critical of Islam jeopardizes the constitutional safeguards that our Founding Fathers fought so hard to establish. And more problematic is the fact that this decision, if allowed to stand, will do more to encourage Muslim violence than anything our Christian clients ever said.”