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 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.”
A message seeking comment was left with a Dearborn spokeswoman. Police Chief Ron Haddad has defended the policy as a way to control foot traffic.
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 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.”
Saieg plans to attend the June 17-19 festival, Muise said.
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