On October 28, 2015, a majority of the full court of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in favor of a group of Christian evangelists who were violently attacked by a hostile Muslim mob while preaching at the Arab Festival in Dearborn Michigan. Video of the assault went viral on YouTube.
The 6th Circuit completely reversed a lower court decision which ruled in favor of Wayne County and officials from the County Sheriff’s Office who silenced the Christians’ speech in response to the hostile mob’s reaction. The case, Bible Believers v. Wayne County, was brought by the American Freedom Law Center (AFLC) on behalf of the Christians.
On August 27, 2014, a divided, three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit dismissed the civil rights lawsuit, finding that the violent response of the Muslim hecklers justified the Wayne County sheriffs’ order to the Christians that they would be arrested for disorderly conduct if they did not leave the festival area.
Within days of receiving the adverse ruling, AFLC filed a petition for rehearing en banc, requesting full court review. On October 23, 2014, the court granted the petition, vacated the panel decision, and scheduled oral argument for March 4, 2015, in Cincinnati, Ohio.
On October 28, 2015, the Sixth Circuit (en banc) ruled in favor of the Christians on every issue, completely reversing the lower court opinion, and directing the court to enter judgment in the Christians’ favor.
In its decision, the Sixth Circuit ruled that the County and the two Deputy Chief defendants were liable for violating the Christians’ First Amendment rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion and for depriving the Christians of the equal protection of the law. The court ruled that the individual defendants did not enjoy qualified immunity and that the County was liable as a municipality for the constitutional violations.
AFLC Co-Founder and Senior Counsel Robert J. Muise commented,
“This was a complete victory for the Constitution and for all freedom-loving Americans who enjoy the protections of the First Amendment. This decision makes clear that the First Amendment protects speech critical of Islam and that when the government seeks to suppress such speech by enforcing a heckler’s veto that favors the violent Muslim mob over the free speech rights of Christians, the government will pay dearly for this egregious violation of the Constitution.”
In its opinion, the Sixth Circuit stated, in relevant part:
In a balance between two important interests—free speech on one hand, and the state’s power to maintain the peace on the other—the scale is heavily weighted in favor of the First Amendment. . . . Maintenance of the peace should not be achieved at the expense of the free speech. The freedom to espouse sincerely held religious, political, or philosophical beliefs, especially in the face of hostile opposition, is too important to our democratic institution for it to be abridged simply due to the hostility of reactionary listeners who may be offended by a speaker’s message. If the mere possibility of violence were allowed to dictate whether our views, when spoken aloud, are safeguarded by the Constitution, surely the myriad views that animate our discourse would be reduced to the standardization of ideas by the dominant political or community groups. Democracy cannot survive such a deplorable result.
When a peaceful speaker, whose message is constitutionally protected, is confronted by a hostile crowd, the state may not silence the speaker as an expedient alternative to containing or snuffing out the lawless behavior of the rioting individuals. Nor can an officer sit idly on the sidelines—watching as the crowd imposes, through violence, a tyrannical majoritarian rule—only later to claim that the speaker’s removal was necessary for his or her own protection.
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The Constitution demands that content-based restrictions on speech be presumed invalid and that the government bear the burden of showing their constitutionality. Wayne County has not come close to meeting that burden in this case.
AFLC Co-Founder and Senior Counsel David Yerushalmi added,
“Kudos to Judge Clay and the majority. Judge Rogers’s dissenting opinion, on the other hand, speaks volumes about how progressives (be they Republicans or Democrats) view the Bill of Rights. For Judge Rogers, there is one constitution for minorities and quite a lesser document for those perceived to be in the majority. The former’s speech is protected; the latter’s is protected only up to the point that some minority—especially Muslims—protests or, as in this case, engages in violence by attacking the speaker. In this case, the Christians and the Constitution did not lie down and roll over. This is an example where lawfare, fought on behalf of liberty, has moved the proverbial mountain and buried the jihadi’s heckler’s veto six feet under.”