The Hatewatch blog is managed by the staff of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organization.

Michigan Trial Turns Anti-Muslim Activist Into Free-Speech Crusader

By Robert Steinback on April 29, 2011 - 9:16 am, Posted in Anti-Muslim

Efforts by Dearborn, Mich., officials to squelch an anti-Muslim protest last week by Koran-burning publicity hound Terry Jones have had the entirely predictable consequence of elevating the obnoxious Florida pastor to the status of First Amendment darling. Jones, who never got to follow through on his planned demonstration in front of Dearborn’s Islamic Center of America mosque on April 22, promised to return to Dearborn today, this time to rally for freedom of speech.

Jones, who heads the tiny Dove World Outreach Center church in Gainesville, Fla., was seeking last week to build on his newly acquired international infamy as the preacher whose burning of a Koran in March triggered riots in Afghanistan that killed more than 20 people. He applied for a permit to hold a Good Friday demonstration at the mosque – one of the nation’s largest – in a city whose population is one-third Muslim. Though Jones promised that his protest would be peaceful, he also said he would be legally armed. (Competently armed is another matter – Jones accidentally fired his pistol into the floorboard of his car while trying to holster the weapon on April 21 outside a Detroit-area TV station). Jones applied for a permit to hold his rally, declaring that only two people – presumably Jones and colleague Wayne Sapp – were expected to appear.

Jones’ assurances didn’t mollify Wayne County Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy, who filed a request with Michigan’s 19th District Court that Jones be required to post a “peace bond” in order to hold his rally. But according to the Michigan ACLU, a peace bond may only be sought when “a person has threatened to commit an offense against the person or property of another.” The concern in Jones’ case has not been that he might be violent but that his words and actions might provoke a violent reaction against him or others. Still, Worthy asserted that Jones and Sapp were “planning to incite a riot,” according to the brief.

Worthy’s bond request set the stage for a jury trial to determine if Jones and Sapp were likely to “breach the peace.” When the jury found them guilty, the court had two options: Either require the pair to post a bond or send them to jail. The judge – no doubt sensing the legal delicacy of the matter – set the bond at $1. Jones and Sapp refused to pay and were taken to the county jail. That caused them to miss their planned protest but catapulted them to perverse iconic status in the annals of First Amendment law. They thus joined the equally if not more repugnant Westboro Baptist Church – notorious for its “God Hates Fags” protests of gay, military and child funerals – in illustrating the maxim that only unpopular speech really needs protection. The U.S. Supreme Court in March ruled 8-1 that Westboro had a right to picket military funerals as long as members complied with local ordinances.

In its amicus brief in the Jones case, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan argued, “It is a basic principle of the First Amendment jurisprudence that one may not be charged a price to engage in expressive activity because others may react negatively to that expressive activity.” This amounts to prior restraint of speech, which the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected, the ACLU said.

“I’ve never despised someone so much and yet so passionately agreed with his right to express himself,” said Rana Elmir, communications director for the ACLU of Michigan. “I’m a Muslim resident of Dearborn. I vehemently disagree with Terry Jones, but I wholeheartedly agree with his right to express himself.”

The local Congress of Arab American Organizations (CAAO) has appealed to its members to ignore Jones’ planned encore today.

The city of Dearborn has had numerous issues with free speech in recent years. In 2003, the ACLU successfully sued the city, alleging that its rule requiring 30-day notice to obtain a protest permit was unconstitutional. In 2006, the CAAO fought a city attempt to bill the organization $23,000 to cover the costs of three demonstrations held to protest Israel’s attack on Lebanon.

In June 2010, four Christian missionaries trying to hand out proselytizing material at a Dearborn Arab festival were arrested. Officials said the four had violated rules on distribution of materials inside a festival ground.

Elmir said the Michigan ACLU will not be representing Jones. That role has been assumed by the conservative Thomas More Law Center. Its chief counsel, Richard Thompson, told the Wall Street Journal that last week’s jury verdict amounted to a prior restraint of Jones’ First Amendment rights.

“It involves the bedrock principal that even though someone, and the government, may disagree with the speech they should allow that speech and they cannot suppress free speech,” said Thompson. “Here they stopped them from speaking at all. … What Dearborn did is instead of trying to stop the people who are inciting the violence, they put the speaker in jail. That just doesn’t make sense in a society that really believes in the First Amendment.”

  • skinnyminny

    At the very least, lawmakers should go after him for unlawful discharge of a weapon.

  • skinnyminny

    P J H,
    the key word is “conspiracy!” When looking at the case of the Chicago Seven, this group was indicted on ‘conspiracy.’ Now, based on Jones’ own words, it would appear he is plotting/premeditating, and hoping the Muslims would act out, as I believe he said it would show that Islam is a violent/dangerous religion. He is strapped when he crosses state lines, which, if I’m not mistaken, must have a permit/reason to carry weapon across state lines – but, this shows his intent as well, meaning, why have a gun if you’re not doing anything wrong. This should be left up to the professionals to protect him. BTW, I thought this country has passed laws about people who were considered mentally ill possessing weapons. People say he’s a kook, prove it! Where is the mental evaluation?

  • Concerned Citizen

    This is what we get from those who wants to pervert the Constitution in the name of free speech and whatever else suits their fancies.

  • Mitch Beales

    Yeah Lex it worked with Hitler.

  • Lex

    Look just ignore this attention seeking kooks like terry jones and westboro baptist church, stop giving them attention and they will go away.

    Heard the term dont feed the troll?
    Well that fits here

  • P J H

    These are sad cases. As much as we must protect 1st amendment rights–we need to note and call out those who exploit the right in ways that ultimately corrode the right.

    The exploiters range from this pastor, to groups who rampaged because of news of the burning, to the media that hypes the stories

  • skinnyminny

    I thought there was a law that made it illegal to cross state lines in order to riot or to conspire to use interstate commerce, i.e., Anti-Riot Act, or the ‘Chicago Seven’ a historical case/trial, maybe parts of RICO. I’m no lawyer, but, it would appear that the Chicago Seven applies here!

  • church

    Honestly, this Pastor Jones is all smoke and no fire. For one thing, he claims he’s protesting against sharia law (of which he is ignorant is, and even confessed to not even have actually read that much of the Koran) and radical Islam in Dearborn (despite the fact that the mayor of Dearborn himself says that neither one exists there). The fact that Homeland Security has never even uncovered evidence of any radical Islamic activity there should have been at least taken into account by the pastor, but he dosen’t care, because,frankly, he’s just an attention whore performing a stunt to get all the attention he can. Some folks in the community group I volunteer with went to this week’s protest against him like they did last week. (I’m a Detroiter, BTW.) wanted to go myself, but I honestly feel that if people just ignored this fool and stop giving him the publicity he craves, he would have disappeared for good last week. What kind of idiot almost shoots himself with his own gun—I mean,seriously?

    Having said that, one good thin that’s come out of all this mess with Jones is seeing the Arab-American community there get support from other church and community groups that they’ve bonded with over the years against narrow-minded, publicity-seeking hounds like Jones who want to start and create issues where there are none simply out of their own selfish agendas.

  • Sam Molloy

    Kentucky passed a bizarre no-protests-at-funerals law that was directly aimed at Freddie Phelps. So all these cities need to pass a law against protesting near churches? Maybe the Federal Government could attach something like that to ENDA, assuming that freedom of religion means freedom from protesters.