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Koran-burning pastor sues over protest restriction

City wants liability agreement

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2012

DETROIT Pastor Terry Jones, the Florida-based minister who sparked deadly riots in Afghanistan last year after he burned a copy of the Koran, is suing a Michigan city he says is interfering with his right to protest this weekend against Islamic Shariah law.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court, stems from the city of Dearborn's requirement that the Florida pastor sign an agreement to pay for any damages or costs the city might incur because of the planned protest, set for Saturday afternoon in front of the Islamic Center of America, one of the nation's largest mosques.

Mr. Jones and his organization, Stand Up America Now, contend the city's requirements for the Easter weekend protest amount to an unlawful abridgement of the group's rights to free speech and free assembly.

Mr. Jones in February asked Dearborn for a permit for a group of about 20 to 25 people to pass out Christian literature and protest what the group sees as the growth of Shariah law practices in the United States.

The city asked the protesters to agree to pay for "damage to property, personal, and/or bodily injury or death, including injuries or death to the individual participants," and to forfeit legal rights arising from any actions on behalf of the city.

According to the lawsuit, neither Mr. Jones nor his associate pastor, Wayne Sapp, can afford to pay for the insurance coverage needed to meet the city's request.

Free-speech advocates say the law is on Mr. Jones' side, even if his message likely upsets many in the large Muslim and Arab community in Dearborn.

A spokesman for the city of Dearborn, Mary Laundroche, told the Associated Press that it wants to limit liability before offering Mr. Jones and his group a permit. The location for the protest is not pedestrian friendly, she said, citing the city's safety concerns.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, although not a party to the case, defended the pastor's legal position.

"The courts have upheld repeatedly that citizens do not need the government's permission to express their free-speech rights," said Rana Elmir, the ACLU of Michigan's communications director and herself a Muslim resident of Dearborn. "Time and time again, the courts have upheld the rights of small groups to demonstrate in public forums."

The city of Dearborn, she added, is no stranger to free-speech cases. In 2003, the ACLU of Michigan successfully defended the rights of Muslim and Arab groups to use public sidewalks to protest without a permit against the U.S. involvement in Iraq.

In 2006, the ACLU helped persuade the city to waive an $18,000 fee it had imposed on Muslim and Arab groups to cover police and cleanup for a large demonstration.

"The idea that someone has to pay thousands of dollars to protest and have their voice heard or they may be liable for damage for what others say or do, you can imagine that has a tremendous chilling effect on speech," Ms. Elmir said. "No one will want to have their voice heard ... if they are going to be charged fees or asked to sign a waiver of liability."

Mr. Jones and his group are no strangers to Dearborn.

A planned protest in front of the Islamic center last year sparked outcries in the city, and was stopped by a judge who banned the Christian minister from protesting there for three years. That decision was later overturned.

Mr. Jones and Mr. Sapp were briefly jailed after a jury found that such protests would "breach the peace" and the ministers initially refused to post the $1 bond.

They later acquiesced and paid the money in a case that drew attention from free-speech advocates, who argued that the court proceedings against the men were abusive and a violation of the First Amendment.

Prosecutors have argued that the Easter weekend protest will only provoke the Muslim community in Dearborn.

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