The incident occurred last month at the city’s annual Arab International Festival, an event that attracted 300,000 visitors and has provided a favorite evangelizing venue for the group, Arabic Christian Perspective, whose members have attended for the past five years.
George Saieg, Arabic Christian Perspective’s founder, says trouble started when he called the Dearborn police to let them know his group would be returning to the festival.
City police told Saieg that, unlike in previous years, his group would not be allowed to distribute material on the sidewalks, and that Arabic Christian Perspective could either rent a stand at the festival or be assigned a specific location at which it could distribute its literature.
“I told him, we are between 70 to 90 people. We cannot be in one corner of the festival,” Saieg told FOXNews.com. “But he did not give me any choice but that.”
With the help of the Thomas More Law Center, a conservative Christian legal group, Saieg sought a temporary injunction to stop the city from preventing his group from distributing materials on the sidewalk. But the petition was denied, and the group was permitted to distribute literature only at one location within the festival.
Saieg alleges in his complaint that the spot was a particularly bad one, and that his group was able to distribute only 5,000 packets of literature and Bibles — a fraction of the $50,000 worth of materials that they had prepared. In past years, he said, when they were allowed to distribute on the sidewalks, they were able to give out most of their literature.
Now Saieg is suing to get the city’s action declared unconstitutional and to make sure that it has access to the sidewalks at next year’s festival.
But city officials say they acted correctly.
“One federal judge has already agreed with us and denied a temporary injunction,” Mary Laundroche, Director of the Dearborn Office of Public Information, told FOXNews.com. “The judge agreed with us that what normally would have been public sidewalks were actually part of the festival life during the festival.”
She added that members of Arabic Christian Perspective were free to preach on the sidewalks, just not to distribute materials.
“They were free to go throughout the crowd and talk with people at any time. They were just prevented from distributing materials, which was a public safety issue — they could block vehicle and pedestrian traffic.”
She said the city allowed all groups to rent tables at the fair, and several local Christian groups did so.
“They [Arabic Christian Perspective] could have followed the guidelines and rented a booth,” Laundroche said. “Another Christian group had come to volunteer at the festival, and they were very well received. The organizers said how much they appreciated their services.”
Organizers also said there have been complaints about Arab Christian Perspective in the past.
“They are very aggressive. A lot of our participants felt that they were trying to convert the younger generation, and they did not appreciate that,” Fey Beydoun, the executive director of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the event, told FOXNews.com.
She said that restricting Arabic Christian Perspective members from the sidewalks was not a matter of discrimination.
“There were no groups at all that were allowed to pass out materials on the sidewalk. We had approximately eight other Christian groups that were allowed to pass out materials at their tables,” she said.
Saieg said he has photos in his legal complaint that show other groups handing out literature on the sidewalks. Beydoun said if that is true, “it could have been an oversight on our part.”
She added that some local Christian leaders have taken issue with Saieg’s brand of evangelizing.
“They littered this place with their literature,” the Rev. Haytham Abi Haydar, who heads the Arabic Christian Alliance Church, told FOXNews.com.
“Just look at the conclusion of these guys — that Muslims are trying to create Shariah Law in the U.S., [which creates] fear with Christians. But Muslims are not here to radicalize or evangelize the U.S. … [Saieg’s] philosophy and his ideas are not welcome here.
“It is unfortunate that we have another Christian person who is not welcome here, but the Christian community here — believe it or not — has told George Saieg that he is not welcome.”
Whether Saieg is welcome or not, two First Amendment experts said sidewalks are usually considered “traditional public fora” in which distributing materials is considered protected speech, and the city’s defense of its action does not appear constitutionally strong.
“It is a bedrock First Amendment principle that public sidewalks must generally be open for the exchange of information and ideas,” said Tim Zick, a law professor at the College of William and Mary and author of “Speech Out of Doors: Preserving First Amendment Liberties in Public Places.”
“Distributing literature is, without question, a form of protected speech,” Zick said. “Indeed, some of the earliest free-speech cases upheld the right to distribute literature on the public streets and sidewalks, to audiences that were not always pleased with the messages.”
UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh said allowing religious groups to rent stalls did not preclude them from distributing literature on the sidewalks.
“The existence of an option to rent a stall doesn’t let the city take away a group’s right to leaflet,” he said. “Leafleting can reach a broader audience than the stall can, since leafleters can walk around.
“Leafleting is also free. City of Ladue v. Gilleo, a 1994 Supreme Court precedent, makes clear that such cheap means of speech generally can’t be restricted on the grounds that the speaker can still use other, materially more expensive (and less effective) forms of speech,” Volokh said.
Aaron Caplan, a law professor at the Loyola Law School Los Angeles, said the case is ultimately likely to turn on many factual questions.
“I think it turns on whether access is controlled — are there gates, tickets, booths, do we expect certain patterns of traffic? I think the central question on both of these theories is going to be, is this really a non-exclusive license that [organizers] get at festivals, or is it a non-exclusive license that [organizers] often get for street fairs?” Caplan asked.
Saieg alleges in his complaint that the sidewalks were not fenced off, and that Dearborn never specified in their permit that the sidewalks were to be part of the festival.
“If you go to the city’s actual ordinance about public fora, it provides for open access, and would have allowed Arabic Christian Perspective to conduct its activities there,” Saieg’s attorney, William Becker, said. “But the restrictions adopted by the city are unconstitutional on their face, and as applied.”
The city will file its response to Saieg’s complaint next month.
“Often times, these cases become very fact specific,” Caplan said. “I think the judge is going to have a lot of factual questions before the case really begins.”