NASHVILLE - Hoping to quell a budding controversy, U.S. Attorney Bill Killian says an event today at which he and the FBI will discuss enforcement of federal civil rights laws protecting Muslims also will specify what speech is guaranteed under the First Amendment.
The move came as a state lawmaker said he has "grave concern" about the Manchester, Tenn., event over a news report that said Killian indicated violations could include posting of inflammatory documents targeted at Muslims on social media.
"This community forum is an educational effort to inform the community about civil rights laws as they play into the exercise of religious freedom," wrote Killian, the U.S. Attorney for East Tennessee, in an email response Monday to criticisms raised by state Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee.
Killian said "our purpose is to simply facilitate discussion towards the goal of greater tolerance, understanding and peaceful community relations, as well as to inform the public about what federal laws are in effect and what the consequences are for violating them, including what speech is protected and what speech could be considered a threat under the law."
Asked to comment, the prosecutor sent the same statement to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Killian and Kenneth Moore, special agent in charge of the FBI's Knoxville office, are speaking this evening at the "Public Disclosure in a Diverse Society" event.
It is sponsored by the American Muslim Advisory Council of Tennessee, which was formed two years ago when state lawmakers were considering legislation that would ban Sharia, the law followed by devout Muslims.
The Tullahoma News last week quoted Killian saying "this is an educational effort with civil rights laws as they play into freedom of religion and exercising freedom of religion. This is also to inform the public what federal laws are in effect and what the consequences are."
The newspaper said Killian referred to a controversial Facebook posting made by Coffee County Commissioner Barry West. It showed a picture of a man pointing a double-barreled shotgun with the caption saying, "How to Wink at a Muslim."
Killian was quoted saying he and Moore had discussed the issue.
"If a Muslim had posted 'How to Wink at a Christian,' could you imagine what would have happened?" he told the newspaper. "We need to educate people about Muslims and their civil rights, and as long as we're here, they're going to be protected."
Killian said Internet postings that violate civil rights are subject to federal jurisdiction. "That's what everybody needs to understand," he was quoted saying.
Shipley said he's concerned.
"I want to know what he's doing. If it's what was reported, it's unconstitutional. You can't punish people for what they think or what they say on Facebook."
The lawmaker called West's Internet posting "stupid, tasteless and unnecessarily inflamatory, but it's freedom of expression and it's freedom of speech."
But he said Americans have had to endure protesters urinating or defecating on American flags and pictures of Jesus over the decades.
"Just because we don't agree with it, we don't have a right to go out there and tell him he doesn't have a right to say it," Shipley said of people like West. "Now if he points that gun at a human being, that's another story altogether."
Shipley said he believes Killian's comments are "going to inflame a lot of people down there, and I think he shoudn't go."
There have been a number of Middle Tennessee controversies involving hate speech or outright threats against Muslims.
On Monday, The Associated Press reported a Texas man has pleaded guilty in federal district court in Nashville to leaving a voicemail threatening to blow up the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.
Javier Alan Correa was sentenced Monday to five years on probation, including eight months of home detention, on a charge of obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs, AP reported.
The Islamic Center already has been the target of vandalism and a court suit as Muslims sought to build a new place to worship.
Earlier this year, some conservative Republican lawmakers were upset because they thought a special bath for Muslims to wash their feet had been installed in the state Capitol.
It turned out to be a new mop sink.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at 615-255-0550 or firstname.lastname@example.org.