CINCINNATI — A federal appeals court has ruled that Michigan police did not violate the rights of a California-based group by ousting them from an Arab festival when attendees began turning violent in response to their antagonism.
As previously reported, U.S. District Court Judge Patrick Duggan ruled last year that men with an organization identified as Bible Believers crossed the boundaries of free speech into creating safety concerns through their inflammatory speech and actions at the 2012 International Arab Festival in Dearborn.
“Your prophet is nothing but an unclean swine,” leader Ruben Chavez, who goes by Ruben Israel, is heard proclaiming in video footage of the incident. “Your prophet married a 7-year-old girl. Your prophet is a pedophile, and your prophet teaches you not to believe in Jesus as the Christ.”
Members also brought a pig’s head on a stick to the event and were subsequently pelted with bottles, garbage, stones and chunks of concrete. Chavez sustained a cut to his face due to the violence.
“I think in reality we should have brought 15 pig heads—that would have maybe soothed them a little bit more from throwing debris at us,” he told reporters.
Because of the reaction of the crowd, police soon approached the group and escorted them out of the festival.
“You need to leave,” one officer states, moments before leading members away from the crowd. “If you don’t leave, were going to cite you for disorderly. You’re creating a disturbance.”
Bible Believers later sued the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office for threatening the group with disorderly conduct charges and for failing to protect them from the angry crowd. It asserted that police unfairly treated Chavez’s organization more harshly than the attendees who had reacted violently.
Attorneys for the police disagreed, arguing in court that “individuals can be held criminally accountable for conduct which has the tendency to incite riotous behavior or otherwise disturb the peace.”
On Wednesday, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati issued a divided 2-1 opinion, with the majority finding that the police had not committed any constitutional violation as the choice of words used by the group, and bringing a pig head to the event, seemed over-the-top.
“The video from the 2012 festival demonstrates that [the group’s] speech and conduct intended to incite the crowd to turn violent,” Judge Bernice Donald, appointed to the bench by then-President Bill Clinton, wrote. “Although robustly guarded by the First Amendment, religious conduct remains subject to regulation for the protection of society.”
But Judge Eric Clay, also appointed by Bill Clinton, dissented, opining that the ruling would give license to police to shut down free speech when others object.
“The majority’s first error is its conclusion that the First Amendment did not protect [the group’s] speech. This is not only wrong, it is dangerously wrong,” he stated. “[T]he 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.”
Clay stated that the decision could suggest to the public that the way to silence speech they oppose is to “get really rowdy, because at that point the target of their ire could be silenced.”
Attorneys for the organization plan to file an appeal with the full 6th Circuit, and will take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if review is not granted.
Other groups that have peacefully evangelized at the festival, which characterize Chavez’s methods as “vocal [and] confrontational,” have likewise been harassed by police. As previously reported, the City of Dearborn issued an apology last year as part of a settlement with Acts 17 Apologetics, whose members were found innocent of any wrongdoing after being arrested while engaging in conversations with attendees at the festival.