DETROIT — The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU-MI) filed an amicus brief last week urging a federal court of appeals to reverse the decision to dismiss a lawsuit brought against Wayne County by a group of anti-Muslim protesters.
During the Arab International Festival in 2012, county deputies escorted demonstrators who were holding anti-Muslim signs out of the area— under the threat of ticketing them— after a confrontation ensued between the demonstrators and young festival attendees.
The Bible Believers, the Christian extremist group that was protesting at the festival, held a severed pig’s head on a spike and displayed signs deemed offensive to Muslims, such as, “Islam Is A Religion of Blood and Murder.” In one instance, one activist told Muslims at the festival to stop following their “pedophile prophet.”
A crowd of youths offended by the fundamentalist group started throwing plastic bottles and rocks at the protesters. That’s when Wayne County Sheriff’s deputies demanded the protesters leave or get ticketed.
The Bible Believers sued the county, but last year U.S. District Court Judge Patrick Duggan dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that deputies did not violate the protesters’ First Amendment rights and only intervened when the situation turned violent. In August, a panel at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth District upheld the dismissal, but the Bible Believers are still attempting to appeal the decision and now the ACLU-MI is backing them.
An amicus brief, which is also known as a friend of the court brief, is a statement by a party not involved directly in the lawsuit but has a strong interest in its subject matter, petitioning the court to take a certain action.
Civil rights attorney Nabih Ayad, who represented the county in the case, slammed the ACLU-MI for the brief.
“I support the right to free speech regardless of its content,” Ayad told the Arab American News, citing his tenure as a Michigan civil rights commissioner under Governor Jennifer Granholm. “But this was about public safety, not free speech. Should the sheriff deputies have waited until a riot broke out?”
The brief, which was filed by the ACLU-MI and the DKT Liberty Project, argues that the officers should have protected the protesters instead of ordering them to leave, especially since they didn’t initiate the violence.
“The Bible Believers were intentionally provocative at the Arab Festival; they knew that expressing their pejorative views of another faith as they did would likely cause anger and offense,” reads the friend of the court brief. “But restricting their speech on audience hostility was content-based, and the speech did not constitute incitement or fighting words as those terms… are understood in our case of law.”
Last year, the ACLU-MI appointed Rana Elmir, an Arab American Muslim from Dearborn who started her career as a journalist, as its deputy director.
Ayad said he was surprised by the ACLU’s action, especially with Elmir on board.
However, Elmir defended the ACLU-MI’s decision, saying that anti-Muslim discrimination is harmful to our democracy, but censorship is not the solution to it.
“Let’s be clear: the ACLU of Michigan finds the Bible Believers’ hate-filled speech and tactics vile and offensive,” she told The Arab American News via email. “However, we cannot allow a precedent-setting court decision to stand that permits the government to shut down people’s speech because of the reactions of others.”
She said the court’s dismissal of the case is dangerous in that it allows the government to prevent the expression of ideas it opposes.
“If this decision is allowed to stand, a small number of angry individuals can shut down a lawful protest just by becoming violent even when the protesters themselves did nothing wrong,” she said. “For instance, a Palestinian rights protest could be derailed based on the violent reactions of a small group who disagree with the message. We must always uphold our core values vigilantly, especially in times of controversy.”
Elmir added that supporting everybody’s free speech ensures that the government cannot pick and choose which speech to censor.
“Do you trust the government to pick fairly? I certainly don’t,” she said. “By responding to threats or fears of violence through censorship and the criminalization of speech, we lose who we are fundamentally as Americans. We could not allow this ruling to stand because history shows us that it could be used as a sword against our communities— squelching the speech of people color, minority religions and the LGBT community.”
Elmir cited several cases where the ACLU-MI stood with the free speech rights of the local Arab American community, including a 2006 case in which the organization urged Dearborn to waive a $18,000 fee for police and clean-up after a large anti-war demonstration.
The ACLU has a history for defending free speech, even if it is offensive and controversial. In 1978, the organization defended a neo-Nazi group that planned to march in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, where many Holocaust survivors lived.
Elmir said her identity and faith are not affected by the Bible Believers and their actions.
“I am proud of the work that the ACLU of Michigan does to promote the free speech rights of all people,” she said. “I believe we can uphold a person’s fundamental free speech rights, yet denounce their message. The truth is I am not less Muslim or Arab because of the Bible Believers offensive chants; I’m not any less Muslim or Arab because of their disturbing tactics and certainly my faith is not affected because of their mere presence in the community.”
This summer, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon praised the court’s decision and defended the actions of his deputies in an interview with The Arab American News.
“We recognize that people have a right to protest,” Napoleon said. “They have a right to free speech, but they also have to do it in a reasonable manner that would not jeopardize public safety. We didn’t care what the content of their speech was. It wasn’t until we thought that they were an imminent threat to public safety that we shut them down. I think we did the right thing.”
Last year, the city of Dearborn settled a $300,000 lawsuit for wrongfully arresting similar protesters at the festival in 2010. Such incidents were among the leading causes behind the indefinite cancellation of the Arab International Festival, a yearly tradition that brought hundreds of thousands of people to Dearborn.