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

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 F---” 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.”

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