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US Appeals Court hears arguments in Dearborn free speech case

Rae Allen
Flickr Creative Commons

An anti-Islamic Christian group argued in front of the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit this week that the Wayne County Sheriff's Office had violated its First Amendment rights.

The group, called the Bible Believers, carried signs with inflammatory statements about Islam's prophet, Muhammed, and shouted anti-Muslim slogans at the 2012 Arab International Festival in Dearborn.  They also carried a large pig's head on a pole. 

Some people in the crowd threw objects at them. 

Wayne County sheriff's deputies told the Bible Believers to leave instead of arresting the attackers, and this violated their free speech rights, according to Robert Muise, the group's attorney.

"We see the importance of protecting a private citizen's freedom of speech from those who do violence against the speaker,' said Muise. You can't "allow violence to justify the suppression of speech."  

Acknowledging that the Bible Believers' speech is offensive to many, Muise said, "The First Amendment is, if anything, designed to protect off-putting speech." 

Nabih Ayad, a lawyer for the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office, said the Bible Believers were  deliberately trying to incite the crowd at the festival which drew more than 250,000 people in 2012, and law enforcement needed to protect the safety of those in attendance and the protesters.

The policy of Wayne County is to protect First Amendment rights, according to Ayad. "But the First Amendment must take a back seat when it becomes an issue of public safety," said Ayad.

Each lawyer said that if his client loses when the Sixth Circuit rules, he will petition the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.

Virginia Gordan, Michigan Radio Newsroom