‘Free speech’ battle erupts in U.S. town
Police in Willmar, Minnesota, have cited a man for leaving a pig’s foot at a Somali booth at a recent farmer’s market.
Joseph Fernkes is challenging the constitutionality of the disorderly conduct charge filed against him, claiming he was exercising his right to free speech, however offensive it might have been to Muslims.
At a hearing Tuesday before Judge Michael Thompson in Kandiyohi County District Court, the state was given until Oct. 31 to file a response to a motion for dismissal of the case, the West Central Tribune reported.
Fernkes was charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct for his actions taken at the Aug. 12 farmer’s market located in the parking lot of the YMCA in Willmar, a small city that has been inundated with Somali refugees over the last 15 years.
The 61-year-old grandfather allegedly drove up in his wheelchair to a Somali-staffed vendor booth, placed a pickled pig’s foot on the table and then drove away while directing an obscene gesture at the vendors, according to the local newspaper.
Witnesses claim he also cursed and used anti-Muslim slurs.
The vendor booth sold vegetables raised by a Willmar gardening program for minority youths.
Willmar Police Department officers tracked down Fernkes at his home after talking to Somali witnesses and reviewing photos taken at the scene.
The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, CAIR, almost immediately got involved, calling for more serious hate crime charges to be filed against the local resident.
“If you curse a person’s faith and then throw an object clearly designed to offend and intimidate, you should be charged with a hate crime,” said CAIR-MN Civil Rights Director Amir Malik, in a press release.
The release from CAIR said Fernkes had been cursing Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and using anti-Muslim slurs. Also, Muslims do not consume pork products and bigots often use pigs or pork products to offend Muslim sensibilities, the CAIR press release said.
CAIR, which has court-documented ties to the terrorist group Hamas, claims anti-Muslim hate crimes are up more than 90 percent since the election of Donald Trump as president. The vast majority of the “hate crimes,” cited by CAIR, however, are either unproven or amount to mean, rude or offensive words directed toward Muslims or Islam in general. Very few include violent acts against Muslims that include an arrest and conviction.
In a memorandum filed Tuesday, attorney John Mack stated that his client meant to offend Muslims, whose religious beliefs forbid the consumption of pork.
But it’s unconstitutional to charge him for exercising freedom of speech, the memorandum argues.
“… The conduct, while perhaps reprehensible, represents protected speech under the First Amendment,” Mack wrote.
That argument does have legal precedent.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio, reaffirmed the boundaries of the First Amendment in a Dearborn, Michigan, case that involved a group of Christian evangelists who expressed their religious views on signs while holding a severed pig’s head at an Arab-American festival in 2012 in which police refused to protect the Christians from bottle and rock-throwing Muslims who forced them to leave the festival. In that case, the court ruled that the evangelist group Bible Believers should have been protected even though its speech was loathsome and intolerant.
The memorandum also challenges the basis for alleging that Fernkes engaged in disorderly conduct, saying he neither caused a disturbance nor threatened anyone.
Fernkes said in interviews he’s frustrated with Willmar’s Somali population. He told the Star-Tribune of Minneapolis they were “taking over the whole damn town” and that there are “so many people who dislike them but won’t speak up.”