A forum in Tennessee regarding tolerance of the Muslim community was repeatedly interrupted last week when a minority of hecklers shouted offensive comments while speakers attempted to address the topics of First Amendment rights and hate crimes.
The event, sponsored by the American Muslim Advisory Council, was titled "Public Disclosure in a Diverse Society," and took place last Tuesday evening at the Manchester Convention Center in Coffee County, which reportedly had to turn people away at the door because the building had reached its maximum capacity after hundreds of people checked into the event.
While U.S. Attorney Bill Killian gave his keynote speech on First Amendment rights, specifically what one can and cannot say about a race without violating federal civil rights laws, he was greeted with heckles from the crowd.
"If someone makes threats of violence, that is not protected speech, and they will be prosecuted," Killian said during his speech, as reported by NPR.
According to The Blaze, roughly six to 10 members of the audience called Killian a "traitor" and yelled "go home" as the U.S. attorney steadily made his way through his speech.
As NPR points out, Killian began the first part of his speech smoothly, but as the heckles from the crowd grew, he stayed close to his talking points and eventually left the meeting without taking questions on his comments.
Many attending the meeting expressed disappointment that hecklers distracted from the purpose of the evening, which was to address the consequences that can accompany inflammatory statements against Muslims.
"I came here because I wanted to learn something … but I couldn't hear because the audience was so disrespectful," Elaine Smith, 55, of Bedford County who attended the meeting, told The Tennessean.
"I cried when I got here. It makes me really sad especially because these people say they're Christians. The God I worship doesn't teach hate," Smith added.
Other speakers, including Kenneth Moore, FBI agent in charge of the agency's Knoxville Division, and Muslim advocate Sabina Mohyuddin were also greeted with disrespectful shouts.
One protester, Larry McIntosh, 54, of Manchester, said he objected to the talks by Killian and Moore because he felt the federal government was trying to impose rules regarding the freedom of speech.
"I feel like [these] men are attempting to intimidate people with the freedom of speech and that bothers me," McIntosh told The Tennessean.
"I would like to say that Muslims have a right to live here and worship freely, but I do not think they have the right to change American law to fit Sharia law. Violence no matter where it comes from bothers me," he added.
Coffee County's mayor, David Pennington, told NPR that he believes those protesting at the event do not reflect the members of his community.
"We're not just a bunch of old country hicks out here, sitting on the side of the road whittling," he told NPR, adding that he believes many of the residents were offended because they felt they were being lectured 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 added.
As NPR points out, there has been friction between Muslims and non-Muslims in Tennessee in the recent past.
For example, recently a Coffee County commissioner reportedly uploaded to his Facebook a picture of a man looking down the barrel of a shotgun with the caption "how to wink at a Muslim."
Also in attendance at Tuesday's meeting was Pamela Geller, executive director of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, who previously sponsored a controversial advertisement campaign decrying "Jihad" and calling for the support of Israel.
U.S. Attorney Killian previously told the Tullahoma News that the purpose of the meeting was not only to educate local residents on First Amendment protections but to also inform the Muslim community that they will be protected against discrimination.
"We need to educate people about Muslims and their civil rights, and as long as we're here, they're going to be protected," he told the paper.