Court throws out rest of Agema suit

By: 
Daniel Pepper, Staff Writer

The federal lawsuit filed against Allegan Public Schools for canceling a forum featuring a self-proclaimed former Islamic terrorist in 2012 has been dismissed by a federal judge.

U.S. District Judge Janet T. Neff issued her decision Monday, March 9, granting a motion by Allegan Public Schools and James Mallard to have the case thrown out on summary disposition.

Superintendent Kevin Harness said, “We’re very pleased with the judge’s ruling and it verifies that we acted in the proper manner in dealing with the situation.”

The lawsuit was filed in 2012 by the Ann Arbor-based Thomas More Law Center on behalf of former Allegan County Commissioner Bill Sage, event organizers Elizabeth Griffin and Mark Gurley, and Dave Agema, then a state representative from Kent County who was also to speak at the Constituting Michigan—Founding Prin­ciples Act event which had rented the auditorium at Allegan High School.

It alleged the Allegan Public Schools and the City of Allegan along with various local officials had violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights under the First Amendment, as well as alleging breach of contract against the schools and against activist groups People for the American Way and the Council on American Islamic Relations which had written letters to the schools ahead of the event urging them not to rent their facility for an event featuring speaker Kamal Saleem and calling him a “charlatan” who “spreads misinformation.”

Saleem’s talk was on the dangers of Sharia law to the U.S. Constitution.

On the night of the event, Allegan police came to the school and ordered the event shut down.

Chief Rick Hoyer said he’d found out about the alleged threats against Saleem and Saleem’s claims about who he was that day and decided to shut down the event because of safety concerns. The event moved to a local bowling alley and the speeches continued.

Neff threw out the claims against the city, Hoyer and the activist groups in January 2014, ruling there was no evidence they’d done anything to impair the plaintiff’s constitutional rights.

In this ruling, the judge stated the plaintiffs had not denied that the various claims by and about Saleem had been made regarding being a former terrorist, being the target of death threats from terrorists and having a $25 million bounty on his head.

“Even accepting as true the public officials mistakenly assessed the credibility of the risk or the imminence of danger, Plaintiffs have nonetheless failed to demonstrate any genuine issue of material fact regarding the reasonableness of Defendant’s decision to stop the event,” Neff stated. “That Plaintiffs disagree with the decision, or the measure of the response, does not render the decision unreasonable.”

Neff ruled there was no way the plaintiffs could prove their case of having their constitutional rights violated because they’d presented no evidence the decision to shut down the event had been based on anything but the stated safety concerns.

“Rather the evidence is so one-sided that the School District must prevail as a matter of law on Counts I and II,” Neff stated.

Harness said the school’s case had taken longer than the city’s because they had different attorneys who’d pursued different legal strategies.

He said he didn’t believe the district had done anything incorrectly and that they hadn’t changed any policies based on the events.

“Our policy has always been to have a communication and a strong relationship with the Allegan City Police Department and this decision was made solely based on a concern for student and community safety,” Harness said. “We don’t see a need for any change of approach.”

The school’s attorney in the case was paid for through its liability insurance, Harness said.

He criticized Sage and Agema for participating in the lawsuit.

“It was disappointing to me from the get-go that public officials like Mr. Agema and Mr. Sage, knowing why the decision was made, would take that approach,” Harness said.

The plaintiffs have until March 30 to decide whether to appeal Neff’s decision to a higher court. The Thomas More Law Center did not return calls seeking comment on the decision or their plans for appeal as of press deadline.

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