So reports The Tullahoma News (Tennessee), in an article that has been heavily linked to and quoted in recent days:
A special meeting has been scheduled [for June 4] for the stated purpose of increasing awareness and understanding that American Muslims are not the terrorists some have made them out to be in social media and other circles….
Special speakers for the event will be Bill Killian, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee [i.e., the chief federal prosecutor for that district -EV], and Kenneth Moore, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Knoxville Division….
Killian and Moore will provide input on how civil rights can be violated by those who post inflammatory documents targeted at Muslims on social media.
“This is an educational effort with civil rights laws as they play into freedom of religion and exercising freedom of religion,” Killian told The News Monday. “This is also to inform the public what federal laws are in effect and what the consequences are.” …
Killian referred to a Facebook posting made by Coffee County Commissioner Barry West that showed a picture of a man pointing a double-barreled shotgun at a camera lens with the caption saying, “How to Wink at a Muslim.”
Killian said 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 said. “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 said.
Killian said slide show presentations will be made.
While threats directed at individuals or small groups can lead to punishment, First Amendment experts expressed doubt that the government has any power to stop offensive material about Islam from circulating.
“He’s just wrong,” said Floyd Abrams, one of the country’s most respected First Amendment attorneys. “The government may, indeed, play a useful and entirely constitutional role in urging people not to engage in speech that amounts to religious discrimination. But it may not, under the First Amendment, prevent or punish speech even if it may be viewed as hostile to a religion.”
“And what it most clearly may not do is to stifle political or social debate, however rambunctious or offensive some may think it is,” Abrams said.
My one reservation is that it’s hard from the newspaper article to tell precisely what U.S. Attorney Killian said; misparaphrases sometimes happen, even more commonly than misquotes. If his claims about the civil rights laws was limited to specific true threats of violence against particular people or particular institutions, such speech may indeed be punishable under the “true threats” exception to the First Amendment. But indeed “inflammatory documents targeted at Muslims” generally are constitutionally protected, so if Mr. Killian indeed used those words or ones that are fairly paraphrased as those words (or suggested that the “How to Wink” posting was actually illegal rather than just wrong), then Floyd Abrams’ criticism is entirely apt. If anyone has any more details about what Mr. Killian told the reporter, or has said in other venues, or will say Tuesday, I would love to hear it. (I found this 2012 speech of Mr. Killian’s about civil rights and Muslims, but it doesn’t discuss this particular issue.)