DEARBORN, Michigan (Reuters) – A controversial Florida pastor was barred from protesting outside the largest mosque in the United States on Friday after a Michigan jury found his appearance was likely to provoke violence.
Terry Jones, 59, was briefly jailed after refusing to pay a $1 bond as ordered by Judge Mark Somers, who also barred Jones from approaching the landmark mosque for three years.
Jones and a supporter were tried under an obscure Michigan law that dates back to 1846 requiring people judged to present a risk to public order to post a “peace bond.”
Jones had planned a protest in this heavily Muslim suburb of Detroit that he said was aimed at “radical Islam.” He criticized the legal moves by local officials to ban his demonstration as a violation of his free speech rights.
“The First Amendment is only valid if it allows us to say what other people may not like,” said Jones, representing himself in court on Friday. “Otherwise, we do not need the First Amendment.”
Jones was released from police custody in the evening about an hour after being escorted away from court after paying the token $1 bond, Dearborn police said.
Jones and a supporter, Wayne Sapp, were also both ordered to stay away from the Islamic Center of America for three years. Somers said he would consider lifting or modifying that restraining order if leaders of the mosque asked him to do so.
A six-person jury in the Dearborn court ruled earlier on Friday that the planned protest by Jones outside the mosque was “likely to breach the peace” in a city with a large Muslim American population.
Jones leads a tiny fundamentalist church in Gainesville, Florida, a fringe group unknown until he courted publicity and controversy with threats to burn the Koran last year.
Last month, Jones staged and videotaped a mock “trial” for the Koran and burned a copy of the holy book in a gesture that prompted riots in Afghanistan and widespread condemnation.
FREE SPEECH VERSUS PUBLIC SAFETY?
The one-day jury trial on Friday on the planned protest by Jones was streamed live on the Internet and attracted widespread notice for pitting issues of free speech on a highly charged issue against concerns about public safety.
Jones asked Dearborn officials for a permit to stand with Sapp on public land across from the mosque for a protest he said would be aimed at “the radical element” in Islam.
Dearborn police said the protest would have come at a time when the mosque and nearby churches would have been packed with thousands of worshipers because of prayers and the Christian holiday of Good Friday.
Another 10,000 people, including some young men bent on violence, could have descended on the area to protest the appearance by Jones, police told the court.
Police estimated it would cost over $46,000 to protect Jones and a handful of supporters from violence if they had protested outside the mosque, and denied the protest permit.
City officials had offered instead to allow Jones to demonstrate in one of a handful of designated “free speech zones” located outside city buildings.
But Jones, who wore a faded leather jacket, jeans, and a Harley Davidson T-shirt in the court, said the idea of a “free speech zone” was un-American.
“Freedom of speech does not have free zones,” he said in court. “That free speech zone starts in California and goes all the way across the country.”
Prosecutors painted Jones as a self-serving figure who practiced hate speech and did not care about the consequences.
“He wraps himself in the First Amendment,” said Wayne county Assistant Prosecutor Robert Moran. “It’s not that easy. Just because you have first amendment rights doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want, whenever you want.”
Moran called the planned protest “a recipe for disaster” and suggested Jones was a risk to himself and others because, as he had announced before arriving, he would be armed.
Jones accidentally fired his gun on Thursday night while trying to holster it after getting into his rented car after a television interview, police said.
Moran had asked the court for a “peace bond” of $25,000 from Jones and another $25,000 from Sapp.
But critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, said officials had acted too aggressively.
An ACLU spokeswoman said Dearborn officials had violated free speech protections of the Constitution and given more publicity to a divisive and fringe figure.
“We vehemently disagree with Mr. Jones and his cohorts. However, this is a complete abuse of the court process and all those involved should be ashamed,” said ACLU spokeswoman Rana Elmir.
“I believe that Rev. Jones came to Dearborn for his 15 minutes of fame,” she added, “and the judge and prosecutors have now effectively given him hours of that.”
Jones has not asked to be represented by the ACLU. It was not immediately clear if he would appeal or if he would hold his protest despite the ban, as he had earlier threatened.
Meanwhile, hundreds of people gathered in a light rain outside a Dearborn library on Friday night in a counter-protest against Jones that was attended by U.S. Rep. John Dingell, a Democrat from the Detroit area.
Dozens of police in riot gear had massed outside the Dearborn court during the trial. A small group of protesters gathered outside while some local Arab Americans attended the trial to register their concern.
“We’re here to show Terry Jones that not all Muslims are terrorists,” said 21-year-old Hussein Shukr of Dearborn who wore a T-shirt with the words “Arabs for Peace.”
“No one here is trying to impose Sharia law. No one is stoning anybody,” he said.
(Reporting by Bernie Woodall. Editing by Kevin Krolicki and Peter Bohan)
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