The public meeting in Manchester, Tenn., about 70 miles from Nashville, was supposed to address and tamp down discrimination toward Muslims there.
But instead it turned into a shouting match.
Bill Killian, the local U.S. attorney who organized the meeting, told the people in attendance that hate speech was not protected by the First Amendment. Over the last few years, there have been tensions between Muslims and many Christians in Tennessee. A Coffee County commissioner recently posted a picture on Facebook of a man with one eye looking down the sights of a shotgun, with the caption: "how to wink at a Muslim." The photo went viral.
Killian never directly referenced the Facebook post. But he did say that someone didn't have to follow through for a threat to be a hate crime. "If someone makes threats of violence, that is not protected speech, and they will be prosecuted," he said.
At first, Killian tried to keep from talking over the hecklers. One attendee yelled "traitor!" at him as he spoke. But as they went on, he gave up and kept his head down, following his prepared remarks on the lectern as hundreds in Manchester, Tennessee, shouted "go home" and called him a "serpent."
He slipped out of the meeting and declined to comment about his remarks.
The heckling didn't stop with Killian. An FBI agent who spoke and Muslim advocate Sabina Mohyuddin were greeted with jeers.
"In 2007, a mosque was burned down in Columbia, Tennessee," she said. But many in the crown cheered that statement. "Shame on you," Mohyuddin said in response.
Three men were convicted of hate crimes in that case.
Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said the mood at the meeting felt like people should be carrying "pitchforks and torches."
But the county's mayor, David Pennington, said he disagreed with that characterization of the area's residents.
"We're not just a bunch of old country hicks out here, sitting on the side of the road whittling," he said. Pennington said that the residents were offended because they didn't like being scolded by the federal government. "I think a lot of people were offended that the U.S. attorney was coming down here to give us a lecture."
Pennington also said that many of the loudest protesters at the meeting weren't locals. Indeed, activists from around the country — including Pam Geller, the blogger and author of "Stop The Islamicization of America" — were outside stirring up the crowd with bullhorns and waving American flags.
"This is the line in the sand!" Gellar yelled.
Some of the protesters said that the federal government was playing favorites with religions and giving special protections to Islam. Tim Cummings of Nashville, which is 70 miles away, said that he respected Muslim beliefs until they begin infringing on his own First Amendment rights.
"When I'm being told that if I post something which they might interpret as being inflammatory or I will be subject to criminal or civil penalties, yeah, that's being infringed upon," he said.
But he said the heckling was inappropriate and likely hurt their cause.
Remziya Suleyman, who belongs to a lobbying organization called the American Center for Outreach, said the yelling was intimidating but also emboldening.
"If it was to scare us off, if it was to push us away in anyway, it actually did the opposite for me," she said.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Some communities in central Tennessee have been experiencing tension between Christians and Muslims. Those tensions erupted last week at a gathering intended to address discrimination against Muslims. It turned into a heated shouting match. The event was organized by the local U.S. attorney. He intended it as a discussion. Instead, he endured jeering from the crowd. Blake Farmer, of member station WPLN, tells us more.
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BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: At first, U.S. Attorney Bill Killian tried to keep from talking over the protesters. Then he gave up and kept his head down, following his prepared remarks on the lectern as hundreds in Manchester, Tenn., shouted "go home," and called him a serpent.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Traitor!
FARMER: The reason Killian is being called a traitor is because of a local incident that he condemned. It's the underlying reason this educational event on hate crimes was held here. A county commissioner posted a picture on Facebook, of a man with one eye looking down the sights of a shotgun. The caption reads, "How to wink at a Muslim." Killian didn't mention the viral post specifically, but said that someone doesn't actually have to follow through for it to be a hate crime.
BILL KILLIAN: If someone makes threats of violence, that is not protected speech...
(YELLS OF PROTEST)
KILLIAN: ...and they will be prosecuted.
FARMER: Killian did not delineate when a threat makes that leap to a punishable offense. He also has declined to be interviewed since slipping out of the meeting.
The booing continued through the presentation by an FBI agent, and by Muslim advocate Sabina Mohyuddin. She brought up a case that was prosecuted as a hate crime. Three men were convicted under federal statutes.
SABINA MOHYUDDIN: ...2007, a mosque was burned down in Columbia, Tenn.
MOHYUDDIN: Shame on you.
IBRAHIM HOOPER: Whenever you have hate crimes being applauded by an audience, you've got to wonder what's happening there.
FARMER: Ibrahim Hooper is a spokesman with the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He says the mood felt a bit like people should be carrying - in his words - pitchforks and torches. But Coffee County Mayor David Pennington rejects that image of his residents.
MAYOR DAVID PENNINGTON: We're not just a bunch of old country hicks sitting out here, you know, on the side of the road, whittling.
FARMER: Pennington says people in Manchester, Tenn., just don't like getting scolded by the federal government.
PENNINGTON: I think a lot of people were offended that the U.S. attorney was coming down here to give us a lecture.
FARMER: Pennington contends the loudest hecklers were from out of town, and even out of state. Indeed, activists from around the country were outside, stirring up the crowd with bullhorns. Pam Geller wrote the book "Stop the Islamization of America."
PAM GELLER: This is the line in the sand.
FARMER: Many protesters see the federal government playing favorites with religions, giving special protections to Islam. Tim Cummings, of Nashville, says he respects Muslim beliefs - until they begin infringing on his own First Amendment rights.
TIM CUMMINGS: When I'm being told if I post something which they might interpret as being inflammatory, or I will be subject to criminal or civil penalties, yeah, that's being infringed upon.
FARMER: Still, Cummings says the heckling was inappropriate, and likely hurt their cause. Remziya Suleyman, of the American Center for Outreach, says the yelling was intimidating while also emboldening.
REMZIYA SULEYMAN: If it was to scare us off, if it was to push us away in any way, it actually did the opposite for me.
FARMER: She says it just shows how much outreach work is left to do.
For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.