City ordered to pay leaflet-distributing pastor $100,000

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN – A federal magistrate judge ruled Jan. 27 the city must pay more than $100,000 in attorney fees to a California-based pastor who was banned from distributing leaflets at a 2009 street festival.

George Saieg, founder of the Ministry to Muslims network, was prohibited from distributing material urging Muslims to convert to Christianity during the city’s 2009 Arab International Festival. During the festival, Saieg, along with about 120 members of his group, were allegedly told by Dearborn police officers they faced arrest if they passed out the material.

Saieg sued the city in 2009, claiming he was allowed to distribute leaflets during previous visits from 2004 until 2008. According to published reports, Dearborn Police Chief Ronald Haddad enacted a leaflet ban in 2008, allegedly citing crowd control concerns.

U.S. District Court, Eastern District Magistrate Judge Steven Whalen ruled Jan. 27 the city allegedly violated Saieg’s free speech rights and must pay about $100,000 to Ann Arbor-based Thomas More Law Center, which represented Saieg at the time.

“I thought the judge made a decent ruling,” said Saieg’s attorney, Arizona-based Robert Muise, who represented Saieg prior to founding the American Freedom Law Center. “It was a good victory in a long, hard-fought battle.”

A panel of three U.S. District Court, Eastern District judges; Martha Daughtrey, Karen Moore and Eric Clay, ruled in May 2011 festival rules violated Saieg’s right to free speech and should not have prevented him from passing out material on public sidewalks kept open for non-festival-related activities, including pedestrian traffic.

The city has until Feb. 14 to appeal the ruling, which Muise said would be a waste of time.

“They would just be running up more attorney fees and costs,” he said. “Anything short of (the city) appealing, it’s over.”

Dearborn Mayor John O’Reilly Jr. said because the festival, held annually on Warren Avenue, is open to the public and the street can’t be closed, the city may choose not to hold it at its current site.

“It’s a matter of location,” he said, “because that’s a commercial district and we have to keep it open for people not attending the festival.”

Haddad and Saieg did not return phone calls seeking comment on this story by press time.