There is an interesting en banc ruling out of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit where the court held that Christian evangelists who were “preaching hate and denigration to a crowd of Muslims” are entitled to damages for being ejected from participation as protesters in the 2012 Arab International Festival. The case raises the long-standing concern over the “heckler’s veto” where a speaker is silenced to appease an angry mob or crowd. The case is Bible Believers v. Wayne County, 2015 FED App. 0258P (6th Cir. 2015)
In his famous law review article coining this term, Harry Kalven observed “If the police can silence the speaker, the law in effect acknowledges a veto power in hecklers who can, by being hostile enough, get the law to silence any speaker of whom they do not approve.” See Harry Kalven, Jr., The Negro and the First Amendment 140 (Ohio St. Univ. Press 1965).
The Sixth Circuit clearly agreed. The Court detailed how in a prior year, the Christians were forced to end their protests. In anticipation of similar efforts by Deputy Chief Mike Jaafar and others involved in the earlier crackdown, the Bible Believers wrote to reconfirm that they would not be targeted to appease the crowd. They received a letter largely denying their account of the prior protests and reminding them that the police would act to stop any potential violence.
In the 2012 protests, the Christians would again be surrounded by irate Muslims and the police would again remove the Christians to avoid any violence. Muslims were incensed by one Christian carrying a severed pig’s head on a spike in a belief it would keep the Muslims at bay. Another declared that “You believe in a prophet who is a pervert,” and, “God will reject you.” Muslims counter-protesters started to take violent action like throwing objects at the Bible Believers.
In summary, the Bible Believers attended the 2012 Festival for the purpose of exercising their First Amendment rights by spreading their anti-Islam religious message. When a crowd of youthful hecklers gathered around the Bible Believers, the police did nothing. When the hecklers began throwing bottles and other garbage at the Bible Believers, a WCSO officer intervened only to demand that the Bible Believers stop utilizing their megaphone to amplify their speech. Virtually absent from the video in the record is any indication that the police attempted to quell the violence being directed toward the Bible Believers by the lawless crowd of adolescents. Despite this apparent lack of effort to maintain any semblance of order at the Festival, each time the police appeared on the video—to reprimand the use of the Bible Believers’ megaphone, to suggest that the Bible Believers had the “option to leave” the Festival, to trot by on horseback while doing next to nothing, and to expel the Bible Believers from the Festival under threat of arrest—the agitated crowd became subdued and orderly simply due the authoritative presence cast by the police officers who were then in close proximity. Only once is an officer seen removing one of the bottle-throwing teens. Israel, when faced with the prospect of being arrested for disorderly conduct, observed, “and you would think we would be complaining, but we’re not.” (R. 28-A, Raw Festival Footage, Time: 00:55:16). The Bible Believers were thereafter escorted from the Festival and ticketed by a large group of WCSO officers for removing the license plate from their van.
It is clear that the police were targeting the speakers rather than those who were threatening to take violent actions or actually taking such actions in response to their exercise of free speech. The Bible Believers were being blamed for “inciting” others — a dangerous standard that would gut the first amendment. Indeed, we have seen the erosion of free speech in the West based on such notions of incitement This includes some efforts in the United States by groups to ban free speech in subway advertisements and other forums.
The Sixth Circuit refused to join this trend:
Notably, a heckler’s veto effectuated by the police will nearly always be susceptible to being reimagined and repackaged [*63] as a means for protecting the public, or the speaker himself, from actual or impending harm. After all, if the audience is sufficiently incensed by the speaker’s message and responds aggressively or even violently thereto, one method of quelling that response would be to cut off the speech and eject the speaker whose words provoked the crowd’s ire. Our point here is that before removing the speaker due to safety concerns, and thereby permanently cutting off his speech, the police must first make bona fide efforts to protect the speaker from the crowd’s hostility by other, less restrictive means.
For me, the role of Corporation Counsel in this flagrantly unconstitutional action is the most disturbing. The Sixth Circuit noted “Corporation Counsel informed the Bible Believers by way of letter that ‘under state law and local ordinances, individuals can be held criminally accountable for conduct which has the tendency to incite riotous behavior or otherwise disturb the peace.'” That position is not only in direct conflict with core constitutional cases and principles, it would negate much of our free speech values in the United States. Fortunately, the Sixth Circuit has not lost sight of those values but it is a dangerous thing to have key police and lawyers in Wayne County who maintain such ill-informed and abusive views.