Sixth Circuit decides civil rights case arising out of Arab Festival
One of the most important civic events in Dearborn, Michigan, is the International Arabic Festival. Each year for the past few years, a group called the "Bible Believers" attends the Festival to proselytize. The group wears shirts, carries signs and in 2012 used a megaphone to publicize ideas and beliefs that are designed to provoke Muslim observers. Many of the messages simply testified to the group's beliefs as Christians, but other messages disparaged the Muslim faith or pronounced messages which most observers would deem inapprorpriate for a crowd including children.
The Bible Believers contacted the Wayne County Sheriff's Department in advance of the 2012 Festival, asking the Department to accompany and protect them. The Department explained that its manpower was stressed by providing security at the Festival and could not serve as a private security service. At the Festival, when the Bible Believers began preaching, they incited a reaction that quickly grew out of control. When the Sheriff's officers observing the situation decided that things were out of control [after, for example, a number of minor injuries from thrown objects] they told the Bible Believers that the group would be "cited" if it didn't leave the premises. The group left, but filed suit against the County Sheriff for failing to protect their First Amendment rights.
After a lengthy discussion of the issues involved in protecting free speech, the Sixth Circuit upheld the trial judge's summary disposition of the claim. It concluded that the speech which the Bible Believers sought to protect was more equivalent to "yelling fire in a crowded theatre" than it was the interchange of protected ideas. Historically, American courts have recognized the "theater" exception to First Amendment protected speech for verbal conduct that is a threat to public safety, and the Court concluded that the actions of the Sheriff in this instance were a legitimate exercise of crowd control, rather than an infringement of free speech.