ANN ARBOR, Mich. - A member of a Michigan synagogue is suing anti-Israel protesters and Ann Arbor city leaders over 16 years of protests outside the Beth Israel Congregation, arguing the protesters have been uniquely provocative and that some restrictions on them would not violate free-speech protections in the U.S. Constitution.
The regular Saturday protests of up to a dozen people outside the synagogue, with signs the lawsuit describes as hateful and anti-Semitic, amount to harassment of worshipers, so don’t qualify for full First Amendment protections, according to the 85-page filing in U.S. District Court for Eastern Michigan.
“The First Amendment right of free speech does not entitle a speaker to use that right repeatedly to bludgeon, for weeks and years at a time, in the same location,” the lawsuit said. “The First Amendment … is subject to appropriate limitations on its continued and repeated usage.”
The lawsuit filed on behalf of Marvin Gerber, a member of the Beth Israel Congregation, contends the protests violate Ann Arbor ordinances on such public gatherings. It seeks an order putting restrictions on the demonstrations and demands an end to what it calls “harassing conduct.” It also seeks unspecified damages for emotional distress.
Those named as defendants include protester Henry Herskovitz and his two organizations, Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends and Deir Yassin Remembered, which say they were founded to advocate for Palestinians.
Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor is also among the defendants.
MLive reported Tuesday that Taylor and other city officials have sharply criticized the protesters over the years and want the demonstrations to stop. But they’ve also said they are powerless to intervene because of First Amendment protections.
“The city has worked with synagogue leadership and congregants for years on this issue,” Taylor said. “I recognize the pain caused by the protesters and it’s disgusting. We believe we’ve acted in accordance with our legal obligations.”
Taylor said Tuesday he hadn’t yet seen the lawsuit.
The lawsuit, filed last week, describes many of the protesters’ messages as anti-Semitic, citing signs that sometimes read “Resist Jewish Power” and “Jewish Power Corrupts.”
A call to a telephone number listed for Herskovitz went unanswered, and there was no response to an email for his organizations seeking comment.
Herskovitz has previously denied accusations of anti-Semitism. MLive cited previous interviews in which he said a synagogue whose name contains the word “Israel” was an appropriate venue to protest Israeli policies.
The lawsuit said the fact the demonstrators only target the Beth Israel Congregation, and that the protesters provide members of the congregation no opportunity to avoid them, opens them up to restrictions.
“The conduct of the protesters is having an adverse emotional effect on Jewish children and young adults who, approaching the synagogue, see the signs … insulting their religion and and denouncing their loyalty to Israel,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit likely faces major hurdles. Federal courts have typically extended First Amendment protections widely, including to the most provocative and offensive speech. It’s among the legal issues where there is significant consensus among judges with otherwise contrasting interpretations of the Constitution.