DETROIT (AP) — The free-speech rights of Christian activists were violated when police ordered them to leave an Arab-American festival or be ticketed during a confrontation with young Muslims in suburban Detroit, an appeals court said Wednesday in a sweeping decision that invoked First Amendment protections even if the message was repulsive.
The case stems from a 2012 incident in which members of a group called Bible Believers were pelted with rocks while carrying a pig's head and telling Dearborn Muslims at the street festival that they would "burn in hell." Wayne County sheriff's deputies told the evangelists to leave or be ticketed.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati said it must affirm the rights of Bible Believers. The case was heard by 15 judges at the court, a rare occurrence.
"From a constitutional standpoint, this should be an easy case to resolve," said Judge Eric Clay, writing for the majority. "However, it is also easy to understand Dearborn's desire to host a joyous festival celebrating the city's Arab heritage in an atmosphere that is free of hate and negative influences.
"But the answer to disagreeable speech is not violent retaliation by offended listeners or ratification of the heckler's veto through threat of arrest by the police," Clay wrote.
Noting a video of the confrontation, the court said deputies did little to protect the activists — even if their words were "loathsome" — or stop the violence.
Authorities could have increased police patrols, erected a barrier for free speech or arrested the rock throwers, the court said.
The case will now return to federal court in Detroit to determine a financial award for the activists.
"The beauty of our First Amendment is that it affords the same protections to all speakers, regardless of the content of their message," Judge Danny Boggs said in a separate concurring opinion.
In dissent, Judge John Rogers said there could have been better ways for police to handle the situation but there was no First Amendment violation.
"In the greater Detroit community, it is the minority's cultural expression that loses from today's decision. ... Realistically viewed, the Bible Believers were hecklers seeking to disrupt the cultural fair," Rogers said.
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