The U.S. Supreme Court has opted to stay quiet on a local free-speech case, marking a victory for a group of evangelical Christians who marched around Dearborn with a pig’s head on a pole while telling Muslims they would “burn in hell” at a festival five years ago.
A federal appeals court had previously ruled in favor of the demonstrators, concluding members’ speech was protected activity.
Today, the nation’s highest court declined to hear the case — offering no reason — which means the lower court ruling stands.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit had previously ruled the demonstrators were protected by the Constitution.
“The First Amendment … envelops all manner of speech, even when that speech is loathsome in its intolerance, designed to cause offense, and, as a result of such offense, arouses violent retaliation.”
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The case involves a group called Bible Believers, whose members were evicted from a 2012 Arab-American street festival over their conduct. The demonstrators were marching around with a pig’s head mounted on a pole while carrying anti-Muslim signs and making anti-Muslim statements.
Wayne County Sheriff’s deputies removed the demonstrators — who were pelted with rocks, eggs and water bottles — to restore the peace. At issue in the case was the so-called heckler’s veto — where police silence a speaker to appease an angry crowd and stave off potential violence.
The demonstrators sued, claiming the deputies failed to protect them and instead unlawfully kicked them out to silence their protected speech. The courts twice ruled in favor of the sheriff’s deputies, concluding they were justified in evicting the demonstrators on security grounds — they were trying to prevent further violence.
The lawsuit eventually wound up before the entire U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals bench, which reversed course and ruled in favor of the Bible Believers, concluding their speech was protected.
“Diversity, in viewpoints and among cultures, is not always easy. An inability or a general unwillingness to understand new or different points of view may breed fear, distrust and even loathing,” the justices wrote. “But … the First Amendment demands that we tolerate the viewpoints of others with whom we may disagree.”
Attorney Robert Muise of the American Freedom Law Center, who argued the case on behalf of the Bible Believers, applauded the decision.
“If this went the other way, it would incentivize violence as a legitimate response to free speech, and that is wrong in our country,” Muise said following the Sixth Circuit decision.
The lawsuit was filed against Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon and two deputies, who had argued that they had a right to protect the public from violence on the night of the festival, noting the Bible Believers had caused problems in the past. According to court documents, the group attended the Dearborn festival the year before and things got ugly: Members spewed hate messages, fights broke out and the group was evicted.
When it returned the next year, the group requested extra protection, saying it was entitled to police protection from hostile audiences. But the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office offered no such protection, arguing the group wasn’t entitled to it and that law enforcement has the right to remove a speaker from an event “for his own protection” and to preserve the peace.
The courts disagreed.
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