DETROIT - The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has agreed to represent a Benton Harbor minister who was sentenced to 3-10 years in prison for writing a newspaper article that criticized the judge who presided over his trial. Today the ACLU filed a motion asking the Michigan Court of Appeals to release him on bond pending a decision in the appeal of the sentence.
“In a democracy the government cannot simply throw citizens in prison for criticizing public officials even if the criticism is offensive and even if the public official is a judge,” said Michigan ACLU Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg. “To our knowledge, this case marks the first time in modern history that a preacher has been imprisoned for predicting what God might do.”
Rev. Edward Pinkney is a Baptist minister in Benton Harbor, a predominantly African American community with a troubled relationship with its predominantly white sister city, St. Joseph. Rev. Pinkney has long been an outspoken community activist and advocate, frequently denouncing injustice and racial inequality in Benton Harbor, its local government, and the Berrien County criminal justice system in particular.
In 2007, Rev. Pinkney was sentenced to probation for violating Michigan election law. But his probation was revoked and he was resentenced to 3-10 years in prison solely because of an article he wrote for a small Chicago newspaper. Quoting a passage from the Bible, Rev. Pinkney predicted that God would “curse” the judge unless he "hearken[ed] unto the voice of the Lord thy God to observe [and] to do all that is right." Rev. Pinkney also expressed his opinion in the article that the judge was racist, dumb, and corrupt.
In the brief filed today, the ACLU argues that the statements Rev. Pinkney made in his newspaper editorial, while offensive to many, are clearly protected speech under the First Amendment. The ACLU further urged the Court of Appeals to release Rev. Pinkney on bond while it considers the appeal of his sentence. The minister is currently incarcerated at the Ojibway Correctional Facility in the Upper Pennisula, nearly 500 miles from Benton Harbor.
In addition to Steinberg, Rev. Pinkney is represented by ACLU Cooperating Attorneys James J. Walsh and Rebecca O’Reilly of the respected corporate law firm Bodman LLP.
To read Rev. Pinkney’s article, go to http://www.peoplestribune.org/PT.2007.11/PT.2007.11.18.html