In 2012, authorities prevented Christians from protesting at a Muslim festival in Dearborn, Michigan, threatening them with arrest. The Christians charged that the police violated their First Amendment rights to free speech, and next month, they will have their day in court in an important en banc hearing before the entire 6th District Circuit Court.
In June of 2012, a group of Christian evangelists called the Bible Believers were marching on the public sidewalks in Dearborn, holding signs with Christian messages such as “Trust Jesus” and “Know the God of the Bible.” It wasn’t long before a group of violent Muslims began to attack the group, throwing rocks and bottles at them and hurling verbal abuse. The attack was caught on video and made its way onto the Internet later. Several in the group of Christians were injured in the attack.
Sadly, during this attack, Wayne County Sheriff’s deputies were standing by, doing nothing to aid the Christians who were being abused by the Muslims. The sheriffs allowed the attack to continue and did not arrest a single one of the attackers.
Worse, in short order, the sheriffs threatened to arrest the Christians, telling them that removing them from the scene was in the interest of public safety.
The Christians took the city of Dearborn to court but, initially, lost a close contest in a lower court. In August of 2014, the group lost a case before a three-judge panel from which the dissenting judge issued a scathing dissent. But the group’s lawyers have appealed the case and have been granted a very rare en banc hearing of the case scheduled for March 4.
In an exclusive interview with Breitbart News, Robert Muise, the lawyer handling the Christian group’s case, told Breitbart how important this case is, not just for the Christians in Michigan, but for all our First Amendment rights.
Muise and the American Freedom Law Center have represented several cases of Christians whose First Amendment rights were violated in a city that earned the nickname “Dearbornistan.” “Dearborn, it’s amazing, it’s a place where Christians’ constitutional rights have been violated, and they have been,” Muise told Breitbart News.
The lawyer explained that when the Wayne County Sheriffs told the Christians that they had to leave under threat of arrest, it is what, in First Amendment jurisprudence, is called the “heckler’s veto,” which is impermissible.
Muise continued to explain how the first case before the three-judge panel went.
It’s interesting because the court judge, he said that the violence justified the Wayne County Sheriffs’ suppression of free speech. So we appealed that to the 6th Circuit. I argued before a three-judge panel in January and that panel was split and they affirmed [the lower court], it was 2 to 1. They upheld the ruling but the dissenting judge wrote a scathing dissent. And he said that the “this court’s opinion is not only wrong but it’s dangerously wrong.” He made the point that they were essentially enforcing blasphemy laws. And so we petitioned for the full court to hear the case and it was granted. So, they vacated meaning that the lower decision, the other three-panel decision, is no longer the law and this case will be re-argued before the entire court.
The new hearing, to be held in March, is a rare en banc hearing, which is a case argued before all the justices on the court and, as Muise described it, is held only when it is thought that a lower court’s decision could be “a precedent-setting error of exceptional public importance.”
Consequently, Muise feels confident that the Bible Believers will win their case.
My sense is that they’re going to rule in favor of free speech. I mean, that’s my hope. And remember, what’s the standard, that there’s a precedent-setting error of central importance. Usually when a case is granted en banc, it is a very, very strong likelihood that its going to be reversed. Otherwise a majority of judges would have agreed with what the decision was, right, or there’d be no granting of the en banc. You never know at the end of the day how it’s going to come out, but the fact that they granted en banc it is good indication that they have serious concerns about the implications of this case on the First Amendment… as they should, right? Because this is the United States, it’s no Benghazi. In our civilized society if there’s speech you don’t like, the response is more speech, you know you get your message out. You don’t engage in violence. But it’s remarkable to have the sheriffs side on the side of the violent hecklers. It’s very troubling.
Muise went on to explain that this case is important not just to the Bible Believers but all of us.
If it were to stand, Muise said that the lower court ruling “incentivizes violence.”
It provides and incentive for those who want to shut down the speech to engage in violence. And the other thing it does is it provides a blue print for government officials who may not like the speaker. You know they are going to stand back and keep their arms crossed and let the angry mob pelt the speakers rather than protecting the speakers as is their duty. It creates perverse incentives—both on the side of the hecklers and the side of the government who might not want not want to protect the speaker. That’s a problem in our civilized society. There’s certainly other political societies and civilizations where violence is a proper response, but our First Amendment is one of the most important provisions of our Constitution that separates our civilized society from most others including the ones we are watching erupt in the Middle East.
If the Bible Believers prevail, Muise said, it will be a victory for free speech for all of us.
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston or email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.