CINCINNATI (CN) - A Michigan city did not violate free-speech rights by forcing a Christian evangelist group to leave the Arab International Festival, the 6th Circuit ruled.
Despite its win Wednesday, the city has for the past two years blamed religious tensions on its decision to cancel the festival that it held every year since 1995.
The case at hand stems from the attempts by Ruben Chavez and his Christian evangelist group Bible Believers to proselytize at the festival.
While gearing up for the 2012 festival, which turned out to be the city's last, an attorney for the Bible Believers claimed that the group's mistreatment the previous year now required protection of its members from the Wayne County Sheriff's Office (WCSO).
Wayne County's corporation counsel demurred, noting that "individuals can be held criminally accountable for conduct which has the tendency to incite riotous behavior or otherwise disturb the peace," and the Bible Believers group arrived to the 2012 festival wearing "strongly worded T-shirts and banners." Some members carried pig's heads on sticks, and scolded the crowd for "following a 'pedophile' prophet."
The crowd became unruly and began throwing rocks and debris at the group members. Relying on legal consult, Deputy Chief Dennis Richardson told Chavez: "You need to leave. If you don't leave, were going to cite you for disorderly. You're creating a disturbance."
Officers then escorted the group out, and the Bible Believers filed suit in Detroit under the First and 14th Amendments.
A federal judge sided with the sheriff's office at summary judgment, and the 6th Circuit affirmed, 2-1, Wednesday that the department is not liable for any violations of the Bible Believers constitutional rights.
"The WCSO's Operations Plan was content neutral," Judge Bernice Donald wrote for the majority. "The plan merely stated that the WCSO would ensure safety and keep the peace. ... It said nothing about regulating the content of their [the Bible Believers' speech and nothing about imposing any prior restraints on Appellants. Instead, it merely flagged a potential source of conflict before emphasizing professionalism and the need for an even temperament. ... Accordingly, the plan did not create any content-based restrictions on speech."
Rejecting the evangelists' claims that they did not incite the crowd, the appellate court pointed to video of the event that proved otherwise.
"Within minutes after their arrival, Appellants began espousing extremely aggressive and offensive messages - e.g.
, that the bystanders would 'burn in hell' or 'in a lake of fire' because they were 'wicked, filthy, and sick' - and accused the crowd of fixating on 'murder, violence, and hate' because that was 'all [they] ha[d] in [their] hearts,'" Donald wrote. "These words induced a violent reaction in short order; the crowd soon began to throw bottles, garbage, and eventually rocks and chunks of concrete. Moreover, members of the crowd can be heard to shout "get them" and "beat the s*** out of them"; one Bible Believer was pushed to the ground. Chavez's face was cut open and bleeding from where he had been struck by debris. And the crowd itself continued to swell and swarm, undeterred by the WCSO's attempts to contain it."
Though the Bible Believers claimed to have been treated more harshly than counter-protestors, Donald noted that the Bible Believers were the only group traveling "through the crowd shouting and bearing signs - let alone a severed pig's head."
Judge Eric Clay wrote in dissent that the city's eviction of the group from the 2012 festival constituted a "heckler's veto."
"Plaintiffs' speech was protected by the First Amendment, as defendants concede," Clay wrote. "Despite this fact, plaintiffs were threatened with arrest because of the reaction of the crowd to plaintiffs' sermonizing. This is a heckler's veto. I would leave to the jury the matter of whether defendants acted reasonably and in good faith, although the evidence in the record compellingly suggests that they did not."