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Heckler's Veto Can't Stop Angry Evangelicals, Sixth Rules

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on November 03, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Loud, unpopular, even hateful speech is still speech and it still deserves First Amendment protections. That's the gist of a recent Sixth Circuit case dealing with the classic "heckler's veto" or the ability of an angry crowd to shut down an unpopular speaker.

In this particular case, the hecklers were attendees of the Arab International Festival who were harangued by a pigs-head-on-a-stick wielding "group of self-described Christian evangelists preaching hate and denigration," according to the Sixth Circuit. When the crowd responded with violence, the evangelists were removed, a decision that the court held violated their First Amendment rights.

Wait, This Isn't About Phelps Family?

The Arab International Festival is held annually in Dearborn, Michigan, home to the United States' highest concentration of Arabs outside of New York City. The goal of the festival was "cultural exchange" and proselytizing Christians were a common, if not entirely welcome, feature. One regular group in attendance was the "Bible Believers." (Yes, that is their name and no, they don't seem to have any connection with the Phelps family, the virulently homophobic religious group known for protesting funerals.) The Bible Believers' goal was to "try and convert non-believers, and call sinners to repent."

They weren't exactly tactful, however. As the Sixth Circuit described it:

The quintessential attribute of the Bible Believers' message was intolerance, principally proclaiming that Mohammed was a false prophet who lied to them and that Muslims would be damned to hell if they failed to repent by rejecting Islam. This message was not well received by certain elements of the crowd.

"Not well received" might be putting it lightly. The group sported fun signs that read "Islam is a religion of blood and murder" and "turn or burn." One carried a severed pig's head on a spike. After being assaulted several times, the Bible Believers were kicked off the festival grounds and one was arrested.

The Answer to Disagreeable Speech? It's Not Arrest.

Silencing the Bible Believers may have been the most expedient approach, but it wasn't the Constitutionally sound one. As the Sixth Circuit notes, one of the primary purposes behind the First Amendment is to encourage the exchange of ideas and mutual understanding. But when that fails, the Amendment's protections don't just disappear. "But even when communication fails to bridge the gap in understanding," Judge Eric Clay wrote for the majority, "or when understanding fails to heal the divide between us, the First Amendment demands that we tolerate the viewpoints of others with whom we may disagree."

The court was not sympathetic to the police who did little to protect the Bible Believers from violence. According to the court, the police response to violence was "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." It rejected the claim that the Bible Believers were engaged in unprotected incitement to lawless action and "fighting words."

Of course, not everyone was so idealistic about the First Amendment or pig's head wielding evangelists. Judge John Rogers' dissent condemned the holding as "a roadmap that effectively advises how to force the police to help disrupt a minority's speech and assembly rights ... It's a win-win situation for you, and a lose-lose situation for the minority group putting on the fair."

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