Dearborn, Michigan hosted the largest Arab-American festival in the United States in the summer of 2012, a three-day event that was open to the public. A fundamentalist Christian group, the Bible Believers, went to the festival to proselytize for their religion.
The group carried signs and wore t-shirts with messages such as “Only Jesus Christ Can Save You From Sin and Hell,” “Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. All Others are Thieves and Robbers,” and “Islam is a Religion of Blood and Murder.”
They attracted a hostile crowd, and some people started throwing debris at the Bible Believers. Police of cers hovered at the edges of the crowd, but made no attempt to interfere in the situation.
The Bible Believers asked the police for protection, but the police told them that they had to leave or they would be cited for disorderly conduct.
What the police did was a clear violation of the First Amendment right of the demonstrators to speak. Even strong or disagreeable speech is protected under the Constitution, and it was the duty of the police to protect the demonstrators from the crowd.
Further, refusing to protect controversial speakers gives the crowd a “heckler’s veto” which the US Supreme Court has held to be unconstitutional. If speakers – even obnoxious and provocative speakers – can be silenced by threats from others, the First Amendment takes a hit.
As long as speech is not meant to incite a riot, it is protected.
The Bible Believers sued in federal court, but lost at the district court level. They appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and lost again. They then asked that an en banc hearing be held before
the entire Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals which is comprised of 13 justices.
At this point, the DKT Liberty Project led a friend-of-the-Court brief which the American Civil Liberties Union joined, urging the Court to rule in favor of the Bible Believers’ right to free speech. The brief noted that the US Supreme Court has said, “In public debate, we must tolerate insulting, and even outrageous, speech in order to provide adequate ‘breathing space’ to the freedoms protected by the First Amendment.” Further, “…the police must take reasonable steps to protect speakers engaged in protected speech in a public forum and faced with a hostile audience.”
The Sixth Circuit agreed and ruled in favor of the Bible Believers, supporting a fundamental American right.