CINCINNATI — The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the free speech rights of a controversial California-based group that was ousted from an Arab festival in 2012 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 identifying itself as Bible Believers crossed the boundaries of free speech into creating safety concerns through their inflammatory speech and actions at the International Arab Festival in Dearborn.
“Your prophet is nothing but an unclean swine,” leader Ruben Chavez, who goes by the name 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.
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 Sixth Circuit Court. In a rare move, the request was granted, and on Wednesday, the court ruled that the men’s speech, although inflammatory, was protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“The First Amendment offers sweeping protection that allows all manner of speech to enter the marketplace of ideas,” the ten-judge panel wrote. “This protection applies to loathsome and unpopular speech with the same force as it does to speech that is celebrated and widely accepted.”
“The protection would be unnecessary if it only served to safeguard the majority views,” it continued. “In fact, it is the minority view, including expressive behavior that is deemed distasteful and highly offensive to the vast majority of people, that most often needs protection under the First Amendment.”
The court said that police must protect the speech of those with even offensive viewpoints and not tolerate what is known as a “heckler’s veto.”
“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,” it wrote. “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.”
In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court likewise upheld the speech rights of a group that identifies itself as a church called “Westboro Baptist,” which protests military funerals and desires for men to go to Hell for their sins rather than repent and be saved.