Hundreds protest Coffee Co. meeting on 1st Amendment rights - WSMV Channel 4

Hundreds protest Coffee Co. meeting on 1st Amendment rights

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Image posted on commissioner's Facebook page Image posted on commissioner's Facebook page
MANCHESTER, TN (WSMV) -

Controversy over a public official's anti-Muslim post on Facebook helped spark a heated meeting Tuesday in Manchester.

It all started after a Facebook post by Coffee County Commissioner Barry West, showing man squinting down the barrel of a gun and a comment above it reading, "How to wink at a Muslim."

West has since removed the post and made a public apology.

In response, the American Muslim Advisory Council hosted the meeting Tuesday at the Manchester Coffee County Conference Center for a chance to talk about American Muslims and public discourse.

"The purpose of this meeting, really, is to get to know us as neighbors - to get to know us as human beings, not some caricature," said Zak Mohyuddin, with the AMAC.

People who protested the meeting don't see it that way.

"Absolutely offended," said Coffee County resident Brenda Jinnett. "I feel it's an abuse of his power and a waste of the taxpayers' money."

A United States attorney and FBI agent addressed the crowd about what is considered free speech and what is considered illegal hate speech.

That federal presence launched a big debate about First Amendment rights.

"I see Jews talked about every day. I see lots of different religions - even the Mormons - crucified on a daily basis, but I don't see the DA coming into the communities and educating on the taxpayers' dime on what you can and cannot say in our society," Jinnett said.

Jinnett was so fired up about the issue, she and her husband even made some shirts that read, "Stay calm and eat pork."

However, the meeting was so loud that what got lost entirely was the message.

"Folks, I'm not going to fight this," said Bill Killian, U.S. Attorney from East Tennessee, as people in the crowd cheered loudly.

Whatever message the prosecutor came to deliver was lost in the shouting.

"I think there were a lot of people who were very passionate - understandably so - and sometimes that passion got out of hand," said Tracy Miller, with the Tennessee Freedom Coalition.

Miller said he was looking forward to hearing Killian clarify some comments he'd made earlier, which indicated that people could be prosecuted for violating the civil rights of Muslims.

But the comments didn't make it clear under exactly what circumstances.

The executive director of the First Amendment Center - a group that advocates for free speech - says free speech is supposed to work both ways.

"I need to listen to what you're saying, and that doesn't happen when I shout you down," said Gene Policinski, of the First Amendment Center.

"Last night was a great example of free speech. And it's messy, and sometimes it's not pretty, but that was free speech in action," Miller said.

Killian did not return phone calls from Channel 4 News on Wednesday.

One thing that all parties agreed on after the meeting was they wanted to hear the U.S. attorney clarify his position on prosecuting people for what they say or write and how that consists of a civil rights violation.

That's what we still don't know.

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