Appeals court rules for city in leaflet distribution case

DEARBORN – The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday in the city’s favor in two out of three issues in a case related to the distribution of religious literature at the 2009 Arab International Festival.

The ruling says festival rules enforced by the city regarding distribution of literature on public sidewalks did not violate the plaintiff’s Constitutional right of freedom of association. The court also said the festival rules did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

The city was sued in 2009 by George Saieg, a Christian missionary who wanted to move freely throughout the festival distributing religious materials. Festival organizers gave Saeig a free booth in 2009 and again in 2010 to distribute his materials.

However the court, in a 2-1 decision, also said that due to the unique characteristics of this particular festival, the festival rules should not have restricted Saieg from distributing religious leaflets on the public sidewalks within the area designated for the festival. The appeals court cited the fact that sidewalks are kept open for activity not related to the festival during the three-day event.

The decision, resulting from a 2009 challenge to the festival rules by Arabic Christian Perspective, a group Saieg formerly headed, does not address restrictions about passing out literature on the roadway closed for the street festival.

In 2009, Saieg and his group were threatened with arrest by Dearborn police if they distributed religious material near the festival.

Mayor John O’Reilly Jr. said the appeals court decision was focused strictly on the issue of openness of public sidewalks in a unique festival setting.

“Since the festival chose to keep the sidewalks open for other business not related to the festival, the court ruled that the sidewalks had to be available for the material distribution,” he said. “It is a narrow opinion, and one we will abide by.”

Judge Martha Daughtrey was one of three judges to side with the city on the issues, along with Karen Moore and Eric Clay. She said the festival rule did not violate the plaintiff’s First Amendment right to free speech.

“The restrictions constituted a reasonable time, place and manner limitation in service to a substantial government interest, and they were sufficiently narrowly tailored to further that substantial interest,” Daughtrey said.

City officials could ask the entire 6th Circuit Court to review the single adverse ruling in a process known as en banc review, where all members of the court are on the bench. No decision has been made on further court action, and it was unknown as of press time if Saieg plans to return to the festival this year.

This year’s festival is scheduled for June 17 through 19 along Warren Avenue in east Dearborn and is organized by the American Arab Chamber of Commerce.