KNOXVILLE – After canceling a town hall meeting at the request of Muslim activists, a Tennessee school district and two school officials have settled a lawsuit over the public’s right to voice concerns about the growing acceptance of Islamic law, known as Sharia law, spreading through American communities. The settlement was finalized Wednesday evening when the district approved a policy barring school officials from selectively determining which subjects can be discussed by members of the public using school facilities.
In February, the Knoxville chapter of ACT! for America, an organization opposed to Sharia, planned an after-hours town hall meeting at a local area high school. Dr. Bill French, an expert on Islam, and Matt Bonner of Crescent Project, a Christian ministry reaching out to Muslims with the Gospel, were scheduled to speak at the event.
John Peach, president of the Knoxville chapter of ACT! for America, and French sued the school district in U.S. District Court on August 4, 2014, for violating their First Amendment right of free speech and their Fourteenth Amendment rights of equal protection and due process. The county agreed to settle the lawsuit [Peach vs. Knox County Schools] just 21 days after it was filed. In addition to revising its facility use policy, the county will pay attorneys fees and costs.
The new facility use policy states in part that “[a]pproval for use of school buildings and property will not be withheld based upon the content of the message or viewpoint of the applicant.”
“This is a victory for free speech,” said Bill Becker, president of Freedom X, a non-profit legal organization fighting discrimination against conservatives and Christians. “Sharia is incompatible with our constitutional and legal protections. That was the message Knox County school officials tried to censor. It is unfortunate we have to educate the educators about our freedoms, but we are thankful that Knox county attorneys recognized litigation would have been futile for the district.”
Knox County Schools superintendent James P. McIntyre, Jr., agreed to cancellation of ACT’s event after receiving letters from Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council for American-Islamic Relations (“CAIR”) and AbdulRaman Murphy, a Muslim youth chaplain at the University of Tennessee. The activists falsely labeled ACT! a “hate group” and falsely characterized French as a bigot. They speculated the town hall meeting would encourage violence at the school and would disrupt the school environment.
After receiving the letters, Farragut High School’s principal at the time, Michael F. Reynolds, contacted McIntyre fearing that allowing the town hall meeting to take place would convert the school into “a public forum for harassment and bullying practices that contradict the open-minded, academic discussion we seek to teach and foster.”
In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Tinker v. Des Moines Sch. Dist. that “in our system, undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression. Any departure from absolute regimentation may cause trouble. Any variation from the majority’s opinion may inspire fear. Any word spoken, in class, in the lunchroom, or on the campus, that deviates from the views of another person may start an argument or cause a disturbance. But our Constitution says we must take this risk and our history says that it is this sort of hazardous freedom — this kind of openness — that is the basis of our national strength and of the independence and vigor of Americans who grow up and live in this relatively permissive, often disputatious, society.”
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Freedom X is a non-profit legal organization protecting conservative and religious freedom of expression.