The Sixth Circuit, in BIBLE BELIEVERS, et. al v. WAYNE COUNTY, MICHIGAN, et. al, ; BENNY N. NAPOLEON, Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan at Detroit, No. 2:12-cv-14236 -- Patrick J. Duggan, District Judge.
This case calls on us to confirm the boundaries of free speech protections in relation to angry, hostile, or violent crowds that seek to silence a speaker with whom the crowd disagrees. Set against the constitutional right to freedom of speech, we must balance the state's interest in insuring public safety and preventing breaches of the peace.That's who.
The scenario presented by this case, known as the "heckler's veto," occurs when police silence a speaker to appease the crowd and stave off a potentially violent altercation. The particular facts of this case involve a group of self-described Christian evangelists preaching hate and denigration to a crowd of Muslims, some of whom responded with threats of violence. The police thereafter removed the evangelists to restore the peace.
In this opinion we reaffirm the comprehensive boundaries of the First Amendment's free speech protection, which envelopes all manner of speech, even when that speech is loathsome in its intolerance, designed to cause offense, and, as a result of such offense, arouses violent retaliation.
The First Amendment offers sweeping protection that allows all manner of speech to enter the marketplace of ideas. This protection applies to loathsome and unpopular speech with the same force as it does to speech that is celebrated and widely accepted. The protection would be unnecessary if it only served to safeguard the majority views. In fact, it is the minority view, including expressive behavior that is deemed distasteful and highly offensive to the vast majority of people, that most often needs protection under the First Amendment.
Punishing, removing, or by other means silencing a speaker due to crowd hostility will seldom, if ever, constitute the least restrictive means available to serve a legitimate government purpose. A review of Supreme Court precedent firmly establishes that the First Amendment does not countenance a heckler's veto. [The court discusses Supreme Court cases from Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940) and Terminiello v. City of Chicago (1949), to Edwards v. South Carolina (1963), Cox v. Louisiana (1965), Gregory v. City of Chicago (1969), as well as some Sixth Circuit cases, and concludes:]
The Supreme Court, in Cantwell, Terminiello, Edwards, Cox, and Gregory, has repeatedly affirmed the principle that "constitutional rights may not be denied simply because of hostility to their assertion or exercise." Watson v. City of Memphis, 373 U.S. 526, 535 (1963) (citations omitted). If the speaker's message does not fall into one of the recognized categories of unprotected speech, the message does not lose its protection under the First Amendment due to the lawless reaction of those who hear it. Simply stated, the First Amendment does not permit a heckler's veto ... .