Federal Judge rules against Dearborn ordinances

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN – A federal judge has ruled that an ordinance requiring Florida Pastor Terry Jones and his organization “Stand Up America Now” to sign a sweeping indemnification agreement before being allowed to speak in front of a Dearborn mosque and another requiring the police chief to grant a special permit only after the agreement was signed are unconstitutional.

Federal District Judge Denise Page Hood of the Eastern District Court of Michigan, who issued the ruling on August 30, wrote in her judgment that requiring the plaintiffs Jones, “Stand Up” co-founder Wayne Sapp and other members of the group to sign the indemnification agreement, termed “hold harmless agreement” by the city, violated their rights under the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and expressive violation clause.

The ordinance requiring the special permit from the police chief was also determined to be a violation of the group’s First Amendment rights.

The “hold harmless agreement” would “release and forever discharge” the city from “any and all claims, liabilities or lawsuits, including legal costs and reasonable attorney fees, resulting from their [Stand Up America Now] activities ” on city property.

Hood ruled that the plaintiffs cannot be required to waive their right to hold the city liable for its otherwise actionable conduct as a condition of exercising their right to free speech.

Jones and Sapp were planning to visit the city and speak in front of the Islamic Center of America on April 7, 2012, which was the day before Easter Sunday in the Christian faith. They planned to speak out against Islam’s Sharia law and to distribute fliers with a biblical verse and the contact information for the group on them.

The Thomas More Law Center (TMLC), based in Ann Arbor, filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of Jones, Sapp and “Stand Up” on April 2, after the city demanded the signing of the indemnification agreement. The suit was against the city and Dearborn Police Chief Ronald Haddad.

After filing the lawsuit, the TMLC obtained a temporary restraining order which allowed Jones and Sapp to hold the event without signing the agreement, though the city itself withdrew their request for the signed agreement before the event.

TMLC President and Chief Counsel Richard Thompson said that Hood’s decision was a victory for First Amendment rights.

“Judge Hood’s ruling upholds a bedrock principle of the First Amendment, that government cannot inhibit the expression of an idea just because some find the idea offensive,” Thompson said. “The fact that some may find Pastor Jones a controversial public figure or object to his message is even greater reason for Dearborn officials to ensure his right to free speech was protected.”

TMLC attorney Erin Mersino, who handled the case, stated that Hood recognized that her clients were “subject to the unbridled discretion of the City’s legal department, and that in order to exercise their constitutional rights to free speech on public property, they had to surrender many of their other civil rights.”

The TMLC stated in a release regarding Hood’s decision that they continued to pursue the case after Jones was allowed to speak because the “hold harmless agreement” was still city law and could affect “other who may want to exercise their free speech rights in the future.”

Jones has been to Dearborn a few times, including last October, when he and Sapp held a protest in front of Edsel Ford High School. The protest was titled “Stand Up, Walk Out” and called for students at the school to walk out of the building in response to what Jones called “aggressive bullying by gangs of Muslim youths.”

Jones planned on attending the 2013 Arab International Festival in June, but the event was postponed until next year so that the event’s organizers could work out the logistics of the moving of the festival from Warren Avenue to Ford Woods Park.

Jones and Sapp have also stated on the “Stand Up” website that they are planning to burn 2,998 Qurans on September 11, one for each victim of the terrorist attacks in 2001.

(Bob Oliver can be reached at boliver@bewickpublications.com.)