CINCINNATI — A California-based group that was ousted from an Arab festival when attendees began turning violent in response to their antagonism obtained a rare appeal hearing on Wednesday after two federal courts previously threw out their free speech lawsuit.
As previously reported, U.S. District Court Judge Patrick Duggan ruled last year that men with an organization identifying itself 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 pole 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’ 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.”
In 2013, U.S. District Judge Patrick Duggan threw out the lawsuit, and a year later a three-judge panel with 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.
But attorneys for Chavez appealed, requesting a rehearing by the full 6th Circuit Court. In a rare move, the request was granted and a hearing was held on Wednesday to decide whether the lawsuit should be allowed to move forward. The hearing is considered rare as appeals courts decline full rehearings the vast majority of the time.
Attorney Nabih Ayad, who represents the police officers named in the suit, told the Detroit Free Press that the matter was an issue of public safety.
“I support the First Amendment of our U.S. Constitution with full vigor,” he stated, “but I also must support the idea that there are times when it must take a back seat to matters which become an issue of public safety.”
But Robert Sedler, a professor of constitutional law at Wayne State University, said that he believed the police should have controlled the crowd instead of asking the group to leave.
“The basic principle is that police have the responsibility to protect the speakers,” Sedler said. “The speakers aren’t doing anything wrong. The threat of violence or disorder is coming from the crowd. Under the First Amendment, the police have a duty to restrict the crowd.”
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 in 2013 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.