Marching around with a pig’s head on a pole while telling Dearborn Muslims they would “burn in hell” may have been loathsome and intolerable — but the First Amendment still protects and allows such activity, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
In a case that tests the limits of free speech, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a group of Christian evangelists who were evicted from a 2012 Arab-American street festival over their conduct. The demonstrators were marching around with a pig’s head mounted on a pole while carrying anti-Muslim signs and making anti-Muslim statements.
Sheriff’s deputies removed the demonstrators — who were pelted with rocks, eggs and water bottles — to restore the peace.
But that triggered a lawsuit by a California group called Bible Believers, which claimed that Wayne County sheriff’s deputies failed to protect them, and instead unlawfully kicked them out to silence their protected speech.
The lawsuit failed twice, once in federal court in Detroit, then again before a three-judge panel with the Sixth Circuit, which concluded the sheriff’s deputies were justified in evicting the demonstrators.
The suit then went before the entire Sixth Circuit bench, which reversed course and ruled in favor of the Christian evangelists, concluding their speech was protected,
“Diversity, in viewpoints and among cultures, is not always easy. An inability or a general unwillingness to understand new or different points of view may breed fear, distrust and even loathing,” the justices wrote. “But … the First Amendment demands that we tolerate the viewpoints of others with whom we may disagree.”
The Sixth Circuit stressed that the First Amendment “envelops all manner of speech, even when that speech is loathsome in its intolerance, designed to cause offense, and, as a result of such offense, arouses violent retaliation.”
Attorney Robert Muise of the American Freedom Law Center, who argued the case on behalf of the Bible Believers, applauded the decision, saying it was “solidly on the side of free speech.”
“If this went the other way, it would incentivize violence as a legitimate response to free speech, and that is wrong in our country,” Muise said. “Any freedom-loving American enjoys protections of the First Amendment.”