A U.S. attorney in Tennessee said that it's possible that some inflammatory criticism of Muslims posted on social networking sites could violate federal civil rights laws.
“We need to educate people about Muslims and their civil rights, and as long as we’re here, they’re going to be protected,” U.S. attorney Bill Killian told the Tullahoma News last week. “This is also to inform the public about what federal laws are in effect and what the consequences are.”
Killian, along with an FBI agent, are expected to attend a meeting Tuesday in Manchester, Tenn. hosted by a local Muslim group to “educate people on the First Amendment and its application in society.”
His comments sparked concern among conservative groups that the federal government is about to crack down on anti-Muslim rhetoric -- a claim the U.S. attorney denies.
“It has nothing to do with Sharia law,” Killian told me in a telephone interview. “It has to do with the United States Constitution and federal statutes. You have a right under the First Amendment to hate Muslims. You can hate all Muslims if you want to."
But he added a caveat -- "as long as it does not rise to the level of violating federal civil rights laws.”
The meeting comes after a Tennessee lawmaker posted a photograph of a man aiming a shotgun with the caption, “How to wink at a Muslim.”
“It’s an open forum to discuss the First Amendment -- to discuss its application to all religions and to Muslim religions,” he said. “And to discuss federal civil rights statutes which we’ve done at other times and other places.”
Killian said the federal government has participated in at least a dozen similar Muslim education meetings across the state.
But Andy Miller, of the Tennessee Freedom Coalition, believes the federal government is using those meetings to silence and intimidate critics of Islam.
“There’s an effort to step on free speech -- any speech that’s contrary to Islam,” Miller tells me. “It seems like our federal government is going down that path.”
Miller said Tennessee has become a battleground over what he called a crackdown on anti-Muslim speech.
“This is the Bible Belt,” he said. “There’s an effort to prove that if they can do it here, they can do it anywhere.”
Killian said the supposition that the federal government would prosecute people for exercising their constitutional rights is “ridiculous.”
“We don’t prosecute people for the First Amendment,” he said. “In fact, this event is promoting the First Amendment for all people -- not only to exercise their religion, but to express their freedom of speech regardless of what it is.”
But the big question is where free speech might cross the line and violate federal civil rights laws.
“Could an Internet posting or letter in the mail or a phone call or a personal confrontation constitute a violation of those statutes,” he asked, citing 18 US Code 241 and 18 US Code 245. “Yes, it could.”
So what about the lawmaker who posted the photograph of the shotgun? Would that be a violation of federal law?
“I don’t know whether it does or not,” Killian said. “We’re treating that as if it were offensive conduct and trying to use this event as we have on many other occasions in the district -- utilize events of this nature to have people understand the Muslim religion and the Arab and Muslim people.”
Miller said the government’s explanation is problematic.
“It doesn’t make anybody here locally feel any better,” he said. “It seems as though they are creating a sacred group here that consistently gets attention from the federal government.”
“It’s interesting the Department of Justice and Homeland Security really seem to take up the banner for the Muslim population,” Miller said. “Why aren’t they having one for the Baptists? Why aren’t they having one for the Methodists? Why aren’t they having one for Jews?”
And Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, believes the Obama administration is using federal law to protect Muslims from criticism, Politico reports.
“In its latest effort to protect followers of Islam in the U.S., the Obama Justice Department warns against using social media to spread information considered inflammatory against Muslims, threatening that it could constitute a violation of civil rights,” the group wrote online.