DETROIT - The ACLU of Michigan announced today that a federal judge rejected Meijer’s attempt to halt distribution of flyers criticizing a Meijer gas station clerk for anti-Arab bias. The judge, adopting the position of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, ruled that “peaceful pamphleteering is a form of communication protected by the First Amendment.”
“Distributing flyers drawing attention to injustice is a precious freedom in this country,” said Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. “The judge’s opinion reaffirms the longstanding principle that a corporation cannot squelch speech simply because it disagrees with the message.”
The court decision stems from an ugly confrontation at a Meijer gas station in Frasier last February. Mohammed and Bilal Karhani claimed that they were mistreated by the cashier because of their ethnicity. Although Meijer disputes the facts, the Karhanis claim that the clerk initially refused to serve them and then shouted, “You Arabs get out of here, we don’t want to serve you guys, we don’t have to serve you. Go back to your country . . . Dirty Arabs.”
The Karhanis, who are suing Meijer for discrimination, began to distribute flyers in the Arab community explaining their version of the events and encouraging people to “call Meijer and let them know how you feel.” Meijer responded by seeking a court order stopping the flyers on the ground that the flyers were hurting the corporation’s business reputation and they were untrue. The ACLU of Michigan agreed to represent the Karhanis solely on the free speech issue.
U.S. District Court Judge Paul D. Borman, in a written opinion, noted that if Meijer thought that the flyers were inaccurate, it has the option of suing for defamation and seeking damages. However, issuing an injunction at this point “would constitute a wholly inappropriate and unconstitutional prior restraint” on free speech.
“If Meijer disagrees with the message in the flyers, it is fully capable of reaching the public and giving its own version of what happened,” said Steinberg. “In this country, the solution to speech with which one disagrees, is more speech, not censorship.”
ACLU volunteer attorneys Kenneth Mogill and Robert Sedler worked on the case with Steinberg and Noel Saleh, staff attorney for the ACLU Post 9-11 Project.