Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Arab Christians Denied Free Speech at Dearborn's Arab Festival

We’re disappointed to see that the Dearborn Police Department’s approach to freedom of expression during this weekend’s 14th annual Dear­born Arab International Festival has been, to put it nicely, thumbless. (“Christian group sues over access to Dearborn’s Arab festival”).

As a result, Richard Thompson of the Thomas More Law Center had to request a temporary restraining order on Wednesday from a federal district judge to keep Dearborn police from restricting the 90 volunteers to a single corner while the rest of the 250,000-300,000 festival-goers can roam freely.

Pastor George Saieg, of Arabic Christian Perspective, and 90 or so volunteers, were planning to return to the festival, as they’ve done for several years, to “walk . . through the festival’s four- to five-block area passing out literature promoting Christianity over Islam.” There’s never been any trouble because of ACP’s presence. I’m told that lots of other Christian groups attend the festival to evangelize each year, as well. According to Saieg, most of the festival-goers accept the literature gladly.

Saieg made the mistake of contacting Dearborn police to say how-de-do and inquire about the exact location of the festival. Next time he should just use Google it and leave the po-po out of it.

Dearborn P.D.'s Sergeant Jeff Mrowka took the call and said he’d get back to him, and then didn’t get back to him--never a good sign. Saieg had to call again, and--long story short-- Sergeant Jeff Mrowka told Saieg he and his 90-strong group would be restricted to a single street corner.

This would completely hinder ACP’s preference for mingling with festival-goers on the public sidewalks. It also violates the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom to exercise one’s religion.

Saieg explained this to Mrowka, but it made no impression. According to Saieg’s motion for a temporary restraining order, Mrowka replied “by stating that political parties and protesters are limited to a specific area.” Never mind that ACP are neither protesters nor a political party. When was the last time you won an argument with a cop?

Personally, I don’t think this is an example of a conspiracy between the Dearborn police and the imams to protect Dearborn’s Muslim Arabs from crusaders. I think it’s more likely an example of one-dimensional police thinking combined with the garden-variety flight reflex government officials and managers the world over practice to avoid making decisions. In this case, it would have taken all of 30 seconds to figure out that Saieg was right, and the police couldn’t just order festival volunteers that they could only talk about Jesus on one corner on east Dearborn.

Unfortunately, that was 30 seconds Mrowka's superiors at the Dearborn P.D.--Commander Joe Doulette and Chief Ronald Haddad didn’t think they had to spare, so shame on them.

Saieg made his mistake, too. He should never have called and told the police what he was up to, even though it was perfectly legal. In fact, he shouldn’t have called and told the police especially because it was perfectly legal, and ACP had done their evangelizing successfully for several years without any problems. For some policemen, if they think you’re asking permission to do something, they think it’s their duty to say no.

If you’re curious and not otherwise occupied, this will all be hashed out in the courtroom of Judge Nancy G. Edmunds tomorrow, Thursday, at 11:00 a.m. in the federal courthouse on Lafayette.


Nick said...

Ever heard of time, place, manner?

the historical facts are certainly in favor of this group. And I support their, and anyone else's pamphletting in general. However, you are being disingenuous by saying that the case is so simple. Government's certainly have some leway- see Heffron v. ISKCON for a similar situation.

but at least you didnt go all conspiracy theory this time, as you attribute the situation here to

"one-dimensional police thinking combined with the garden-variety flight reflex government officials and managers the world over practice to avoid making decisions." I agree.

jen said...

Nick: Your remarks were too cryptic. What is it that makes this case NOT "simple"?

Nick said...


Im not sure how you saw my words as cryptic? There were no hidden messages. In any case, I'm saying that to assert that the Christian group's free speech rights are clearly being violated is much harder to determine. It is one thing to assert, as DU does, that the Dearborn police's policy " violates the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom to exercise one’s religion." but it is another to assert why. Free speech rights are never clear and the Courts have peculiar ways in dealing with cases that involve "public forums." The courts often give deference to state actors to place reasonable restrictions on speech, provided they are at the very least content-neutral ( ie traffic control). However, a whole host of other factors can also arise as well.

I would say that although the city could make a good claim for its policy, especially given that the size of this group is over 90 people, it will ultimately fail given the historical use of sidewalks and the fact that this group has been at the festival before.

T.R. Clancy said...

Hi Nick

No, I didn’t go all conspiracy THIS time, but I’m keeping a sharp lookout.

Anyway, Judge Edmunds ruled against granting an injunction.

I agree, Governments do have leeway, but where it comes down to disputes between arbitrary police decision-making and free exercise by citizens, I believe the safest course is to assume the government is taking too much leeway. I believe that's why we have a Bill of Rights.

In this case Heffron v ISKON did come up during the city’s oral argument. It’s not exactly on point, and Judge Edmunds said so. Heffron concerns Hare Krishnas who were selling things and soliciting money, not just giving things away for free, activities that in that case clearly fell under explicit state fairground rules. Also, every square foot of the state fairgrounds were under government control. In Dearborn, the festival area is within the blocked-off streets, but the public sidewalks retain their public quality. Still, the police chose to exercise authority over the sidewalks by saying the ACP people can’t walk the sidewalks and give things away at the same time.

Chief Haddad and the city fell back on the “crowd control” argument, but that was contradicted by the testimony that ACP has been here 5 years previously and never caused a crowd problem. His concerns about ACP creating disorder were purely hypothetical, where they weren’t contradicted by past experience—too poor a basis, in my view, to impose a restriction on free speech rights. I think Justice Brennan’s dissent in Heffron answers that issue better than the majority did, and in his opinion the government had no right to ban distribution of literature outside the booths.

I still think ACP should have just shown up and done their thing without attracting police attention to themselves.

Thanks for commenting.

Nick said...

I also agree with Brennan's partial dissent in Heffron. Im glad about the decision in this case as well, the traditionally protected use of sidewalks intersected too much with whatever type of control the city believed it had.

Nick said...

o well oops, i gathered from your post that the christian group had won, then i read the news today. oh well, my guess is that they can still make a good case- but at least the city is letting them at the event still.