Court rules Dearborn violated evangelist's rights

By Ed White

Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) -- A Detroit suburb violated the free-speech rights of a Christian evangelist by barring him from handing out leaflets at an Arab-American street festival last year, a federal appeals court said last Thursday.

The 2-1 decision comes less than a month before the next festival in Dearborn, which draws thousands of people to Warren Avenue in the heavily Arab community.

The festival had offered George Saieg of Anaheim, Calif., a free booth in 2010, but said he and his followers could not freely walk sidewalks with literature about converting Muslims to Christianity.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the restriction was unreasonable, especially when vendors and pedestrians were allowed on sidewalks during the festival.

Dearborn and its police department "violated Saieg's First Amendment right to freedom of speech," judges Karen Nelson Moore and Eric Clay said. "Absent an injunction, Saieg will continue to suffer irreparable injury for which there is no adequate remedy at law."

Saieg had no problems for years at the Arab festival until 2009 when Ron Haddad became Dearborn police chief. Haddad has defended the policy as a way to control foot traffic.

Mayor Jack O'Reilly said he's "fine" with the court decision but is concerned about the cost of cleaning up leaflets dropped on the ground.

It's the second time the appeals court has intervened. In 2010, a federal judge in Detroit upheld the city's restrictions. But the court stepped in on the eve of the festival and said Saieg could at least distribute information on the perimeter.

After another look, Moore and Clay said last Thursday that allowing him on the perimeter still doesn't meet the pastor's free-speech rights.

"Everybody should be pleased," Saieg's attorney, Robert Muise, said. "Dearborn is getting a pretty strong reputation as being the enemy of the First Amendment. As long as they keep passing these draconian restrictions that violate the rights of everyone, we're going to challenge them."

The dissenting judge on the appeals court, Martha Craig Daughtrey, said the restrictions were "narrowly tailored" and not unreasonable.

Saieg plans to attend the June 17-19 festival, Muise said.

A Florida pastor, the Rev. Terry Jones, has said he, too, will appear. In April, he was barred from demonstrating outside a Dearborn mosque unless he posted a $1 "peace bond." He refused.

"Any public sidewalks are open and free game," Muise said.

A burning of the Quran in March at Jones' church in Florida led to a series of violent protests in Afghanistan that killed more than a dozen people.


Mike Householder contributed to this report.

Published: Mon, May 30, 2011