Forum on Civil Rights Sparks Protest Rally for Free Speech

Heather Jensen, News 2 (Nashville), June 4, 2013

A forum set up to promote discussion on tolerance and understanding did not go as planned Tuesday night in Manchester.

Those that were part of “Public Discourse in a Diverse Society” open forum were met with very vocal opposition at the Manchester-Coffee County Conference Center.

The event was described by Bill Killian, U.S. Attorney of East Tennessee and guest speaker, as an educational effort about civil rights laws as they relate to freedom of religion, specifically the Muslim religion. The forum was also to inform the public of the federal laws regarding civil rights and the consequences of violating those laws.

However, critics saw the forum as an effort to crackdown on anti-Muslim speech.

Prior to the forum, hundreds of protestors rallied outside the conference center, organized by Pamela Geller, a well-known author, blogger, and political activist.

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The peaceful protest got heated when numerous protestors were turned away as the center reached capacity.

Those that made it inside showed a sign of unity when the forum began with the Pledge of Allegiance. But that unity was fleeting.

When Killian approached the podium, people booed and hissed.

When he tried to talk about hate crimes, he was nearly shutdown.

“Folks, I’m not going to fight this,” he said.

The remark brought cheers.

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The crowd cheered after Killian said, “In this country, hateful speech is allowed.”

Killian went on to say, “But if that speech makes threats, it is not protected.”

The responsive audience gave FBI Agent Kenneth Moore more room to talk, as he addressed their concerns.

“Some of you here tonight believe that our presence here is simply to step on and to stifle your First Amendment right to free speech,” he said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Moore’s comments referenced recent news coverage that suggested the Federal government would consider some inflammatory materials against Muslims as a violation of civil rights, including materials posted on social media.

Killian was quoted in many of the articles.

The comments by Killian came on the heels of a Facebook post by Coffee County Commissioner Barry West that showed a man staring down the barrel of a shotgun and the words “How to wink at a Muslim.”

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The local chapter of the American Muslim Advisory Council (AMAC), organizers of the forum, said the event and West’s post were not related.

Following the addresses of Killian and Moore, the forum moved forward with a presentation on Muslim populations, lifestyles, and religion.

Near the end of the presentation, an American-born, Muslim woman talked about the 2007 arson of a mosque in Columbia, Tennessee, to show the impact of hate crimes. A large number of attendees cheered.

The numerous outbursts forced organizers to cut short the scheduled question and answer portion of the forum. {snip}

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