6th Circuit Upholds Free Speech Restriction of Controversial Christian Demonstration

In a freedom of speech lawsuit decided this week, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of police who escorted Christian protesters of a Muslim street fair from the event to avoid crowd violence caused by the controversial demonstration.  Although the law has established that violence-inciting speech may be censored, a strong dissent to the majority’s opinion questions whether or not the Court went too far in limiting First Amendment rights.

Christian Demonstrators Create Disturbance at Muslim Festival

The facts of Bible Believers v Wayne County arose from a 2012 incident at the Arab International Festival in Dearborn, Michigan.  The event, held every summer in Dearborn, was a three-day gathering open to the public which featured carnival attractions, music, live entertainment, and international food.  In 2012, the Arab Festival welcomed roughly 250,000 members of the public.  The Bible Believers chose the festival as a venue to demonstrate against the Muslim faith by gathering at the event to preach Christianity and discourage practice of Islam.

Ruben Chavez, leader of the Bible Believers, had written to the police informing officials of his intent to conduct a peaceful protest of the Arab International Festival prior to the event, and followed through by leading his followers to the gathering.  Members of the Bible Believers wore t-shirts with pro-Christian messages including “Trust Jesus,” “Only Jesus Christ Can Save You From Sin and Hell,” “Obey God, Repent,” and “Turn or Burn.”  Additionally, one Bible Believer carried a severed pig’s head on a stick, which Chavez claimed protected the group by repelling observers who feared it.

Chavez and the Bible Believers moved throughout the festival crowd, preaching against Islam, condemning its followers for following a “pedophile” prophet, and warning them of God’s impending judgment which would bring doom to Muslim followers.  After several minutes of the controversial speech, members of the crowd began shouting at the Bible Believers and throwing rocks or pieces of debris at them.  As the Bible Believers moved deeper into the crowd, the cascade of objects thrown at them intensified despite efforts by local police to keep the disturbance non-violent.  Eventually, local police escorted the Bible Believers from the festival, citing the increasingly agitated crowd and potentially dangerous situation the demonstration had created.

Ruben Chavez filed a lawsuit against the Wayne County Police Department for violation of the Bible Believers’ First Amendment right to peaceably gather and protest at a public forum.  The 6th Circuit affirmed the actions of the police, citing legal precedent that allows for speech to be restricted when it incites violence.

6th Circuit Supports Restriction of Speech

The First Amendment right to freedom of speech is not absolute, so there are instances in which government officials such as police can take action to limit expression of beliefs or values.  Relevant to the Bible Believers lawsuit, the 6th Circuit noted two reasons why the demonstration conducted by Chavez and his instigators was not protected speech:

  1. The Bible Believers actually intended to produce violence.  Pointing to video evidence of the event, the Court determined that there was clear evidence of intent to incite violent reaction by engaging in speech that was highly offensive to the large crowd at the Arab International Festival.  Speech that is intended to incite or encourage violence is not constitutionally protected, and the Bible Believers’ actions fell under this category in the 6th Circuit’s opinion.
  2. The majority also noted that violence was the result of the Bible Believers’ demonstration, and the only way for police to regain control of the situation was to restrict speech.  The Court acknowledged that a state must not “unduly suppress free communication of views,” but determined that the police had no alternative but to restrict speech once the “threat of violent retaliation and physical injury become too great.”  Once the crowd became overly excited, the only option available to police was to remove the Bible Believers from the event.

The 6th Circuit majority determined that the violent reaction to the Bible Believers, which the Court blamed on Chavez’s group, was sufficient incident to restrict freedom of speech to preserve peace.  While it is easy to agree, particularly considering the relatively unsympathetic approach to spreading a religious belief that the Bible Believers employed, a dissent to the majority offered scathing, and well-crafted, criticism of the outcome.

Dissent Rejects 6th Circuits Limits on Free Speech

In a dissenting opinion, the minority writing took issue with the majority’s application of law allowing violence-inciting speech to be restricted by making two key points:

  1. The majority supports a “heckler’s veto” of free expression of speech by which crowds who oppose unpopular speech would simply need to get dangerously rowdy in order for police to usher the unwelcome speaker away.
  2. Police can manufacture this heckler’s veto by simply standing by – something the dissent accused Wayne County Police of doing in this case – until crowd agitation is sufficiently extreme to silence speech.

The dissent points out that under the majority’s view, unpopular speech held in a public forum is easily silenced by unruly crowds and courts willing to blame the speaker for inciting violence.  That the Bible Believers were offensive and socially reprehensible in their religious expression is unarguable, but the First Amendment was not created to protect speech that everyone supports or agrees with.  First Amendment protections are designed for speech that is unpopular, and the dissent’s condemnation of the 6th Circuit’s acceptance of a heckler’s veto will be something to keep an eye on should the Bible Believers case work its way higher in the judicial system.

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