A forum set up to promote discussion on tolerance and understanding did not go as planned Tuesday night in Manchester.
Those that were part of “Public Discourse in a Diverse Society” open forum were met with very vocal opposition at the Manchester-Coffee County Conference Center.
The event was described by Bill Killian, U.S. Attorney of East Tennessee and guest speaker, as an educational effort about civil rights laws as they relate to freedom of religion, specifically the Muslim religion. The forum was also to inform the public of the federal laws regarding civil rights and the consequences of violating those laws.
However, critics saw the forum as an effort to crackdown on anti-Muslim speech.
Prior to the forum, hundreds of protestors rallied outside the conference center, organized by Pamela Geller, a well-known author, blogger, and political activist.
Many protestors held signs with messages of free speech.
The peaceful protest got heated when numerous protestors were turned away as the center reached capacity.
Those that made it inside showed a sign of unity when the forum began with the Pledge of Allegiance. But that unity was fleeting.
When Killian approached the podium, people booed and hissed.
When he tried to talk about hate crimes, he was nearly shutdown.
“Folks, I'm not going to fight this,” he said.
The remark brought cheers.
Killian continued to speak.
His attempt to discuss the First Amendment as a right guaranteed to all citizens seemed to miss the mark.
The crowd cheered after Killian said, “In this country, hateful speech is allowed.”
Killian went on to say, “But if that speech makes threats, it is not protected.”
The responsive audience gave FBI Agent Kenneth Moore more room to talk, as he addressed their concerns.
“Some of you here tonight believe that our presence here is simply to step on and to stifle your First Amendment right to free speech,” he said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Moore's comments referenced recent news coverage that suggested the Federal government would consider some inflammatory materials against Muslims as a violation of civil rights, including materials posted on social media.
Killian was quoted in many of the articles.
The comments by Killian came on the heels of a Facebook post by Coffee County Commissioner Barry West that showed a man staring down the barrel of a shotgun and the words “How to wink at a Muslim.”
West has since apologized, but the post brought Manchester and Coffee County national and worldwide attention.
“I know the world is watching Manchester tonight to see if we're going to lay down or going to fight this,” Protester Katy Ishee told Nashville's News 2 before the forum. “We can do this civilly without knock down, drag out (fights).”
The local chapter of the American Muslim Advisory Council (AMAC), organizers of the forum, said the event and West's post were not related.
Following the addresses of Killian and Moore, the forum moved forward with a presentation on Muslim populations, lifestyles, and religion.
Near the end of the presentation, an American-born, Muslim woman talked about the 2007 arson of a mosque in Columbia, Tennessee, to show the impact of hate crimes. A large number of attendees cheered.
The numerous outbursts forced organizers to cut short the scheduled question and answer portion of the forum. However, Moore stayed in the center to answer many questions one-on-one.
Among the predominantly outraged group that attended the two-hour forum, there were many people that attempted to calm the crowd and allow the speakers to be heard, despite their own personal opposition.
Many protestors continued to rally outside the center after the forum was over.