Manchester, Tennessee isn’t a place most people know about or think about, unless it’s June and they’re making their way there to party with the very young music lovers that gather there every year for the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival.
Last night, hundreds (one report said 2,000 people) descended upon the town for other, less entertaining reasons. It was the location of a seminar sponsored by the American Muslim Advisory Council (AMAC) called “Public Disclosure in a Diverse Society”. Sounds fairly harmless and even a little boring, but it’s had the attention of patriot groups from all over the country for the past several weeks. There may be good reason. They see this as a meeting that will let concerned Muslims know—and non-Muslims understand– that some speech that could be seen as offensive by Muslims could potentially be prosecuted as civil rights violations under federal law.
Bill Killian, the Obama-appointed U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee, and Kenneth Moore**, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Knoxville office were the presenters at the event. Some in attendance shouted as they spoke. The room was filled to capacity and hundreds of others stayed outside displaying signs supporting free speech. Killian said the meeting was meant to be an “educational effort with civil rights laws”. For a different opinion, read free speech activist Pam Geller’s commentary and see her pictures here on the sometimes raucous atmosphere at the meeting.
This all started when a local politician in the Manchester area posted a controversial picture on Facebook of a man aiming a shotgun to the camera. It had the caption “How to Wink at a Muslim”. Stupid and insensitive perhaps, but rising to the level of a hate crime? I wouldn’t think so. Prior to the event, Killian asked what would happen if someone had posted the same image directed at Christians?
That’s easy—nothing would have happened. We know this, because it never does. Over the years, “artists” have submitted work featuring crosses sitting in urine, and paintings of Jesus’ mother Mary tainted with animal feces and these get prominently displayed in museums that exist because of taxpayer dollars. Aside from some editorials and interviews with Catholics who found them offensive, there were no reports of Christians burning buildings or rioting. That wasn’t the case in 2005 however, when a Danish paper printed editorial cartoons featuring the prophet Muhammad. Protests and violence in Europe and the Middle East resulted from those who claimed to be offended by the cartoons.
According to First Amendment Center president and executive director Gene Policinski, the Facebook post of the Tennessee politician lacked specificity in who was being targeted and presented no imminent threat to any one person so it was therefore protected under the First Amendment. He said the First Amendment “requires government to really demonstrate that it’s a true threat before they can restrict our speech.”
Brenda Jinnett, who attended the AMAC meeting, said she’s offended this event was held at all. She told WSMV: “I see Jews talked about every day. I see lots of different religions – even the Mormons – crucified on a daily basis, but I don’t see the DA coming into the communities and educating on the taxpayers’ dime on what you can and cannot say in our society”.
The meeting seemed to leave people with more questions than answers, particularly when it comes to exactly what would be considered hate speech and therefore subject to criminal charges. Is an honest discussion about jihad, a tenet of radical Islam, considered hate speech?
State Senator Mike Bell said he attended the event because of the concerns he had when he read Killian’s statement announcing the meeting. After the event, Bell said he still wasn’t sure where Killian stands on freedom of speech. That’s a frightening prospect considering Killian is only doing what his boss, the president, would want him to do. I think if you’ve been paying any attention lately, the IRS scandal and the seizing of journalists’ phone records show us how lightly this administration takes the First Amendment and the Constitution as a whole for that matter.
It’s noteworthy that AMAC, the organization responsible for last night’s event, was formed two years ago when Tennessee’s state legislature was considering a bill that would not allow the practice of sharia law in the state (sharia law is the strict, authoritarian set of laws practiced by those most devoted to Islam). Blasphemy laws restricting speech (anything deemed offensive to Islam and Muhammad) are a large part of sharia. The organization says it just wants people to understand their Muslim neighbors and their culture better.
Those standing for free speech want everyone who comes to America—Muslim or not— to understand that you come here for freedom and it comes with a price: the knowledge that at some point, you will hear or see something you don’t like. That’s life. The Constitution doesn’t guarantee anyone the right to never be offended.
**Moore was instrumental in the whitewashing of FBI training manuals that removed any references to “jihad” and terrorism- anything that would be deemed offensive to Muslims**