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Texas Shooting Sheds Light On Murkiness Between Free, Hate Speech


And now more on the city of Garland, Texas, where Sunday's attack took place. Garland is a suburb of Dallas, home to a quarter of a million people. As NPR's Wade Goodwyn tells us, it was a place unaccustomed to national and international controversies, at least until earlier this year.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Pamela Geller, leader of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, says she didn't pick Garland to have her "Muhammad" art contest. A Chicago Muslim organization called Sound Vision did, when they held a meeting in Garland back in January just after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris.

PAMELA GELLER: It was not a week after the slaughter. I don't even think the cartoonists were buried yet.

GOODWYN: Sound Vision's rally in January was called "We Stand With The Prophet" and was a meeting of North Texas Muslims to express peace and love. The organization has a history in Chicago that goes back two decades and has thousands of followers across the country.

MALIK MUJAHID: We believe hate breeds hate. We like to create loving relationships among neighbors - Christians, Muslims and Jews and people of other faith.

GOODWYN: Chicago Imam Malik Mujahid says the event in Garland had been planned for months, the auditorium booked and paid for. And even after the attack in Paris, organizers felt the rally was an appropriate response to the hatred on display in Europe - nearly a thousand American-Muslims coming together to decry violence and terrorism and express love for their country.

MUJAHID: People who came to attend our program actually were neighbors from Garland and close-by suburbs.

GOODWYN: But the event riled-up thousands in North Texas, as local NBC affiliate KXAS reported.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You're not welcome here.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: On both sides of the street, protest.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We're here to stand up for the American way of life from a faction of people that are trying to destroy it.

GOODWYN: The Texas protesters held signs saying, go back home and take Obama with you, and, you're not American - don't fly our flag. Pam Geller was a key organizer of these protests, and the energetic response encouraged her to rent the same exact auditorium in Garland.

GELLER: We felt a conference in defense of free speech was appropriate and so we held a "Muhammad Art Exhibit" depicting Muhammad over the past, you know, 1,400 years.

GOODWYN: Geller says demonstrating that Americans will not be bound by Muslim sensitivities is a good way to defend the principle of free speech. Others disagree.

MARK POTOK: Geller's whole theory is akin to some Klan group holding a cartoon contest to depict black Americans.

GOODWYN: Mark Potok is a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has branded Geller's organization a hate group.

POTOK: What Geller is really doing is creating a provocation that is designed to push her into the limelight, and unfortunately because of this shooting that is precisely what has happened.

GOODWYN: Indeed, in the moments after the assault by the two Muslim men, Geller said it demonstrated the need to hold more provocative events.

GELLER: We should have one of these conferences every month - a thousand cartoon contests, a thousand free speech conferences.

GOODWYN: There is one group that's having second thoughts about all this, and that's the Garland Independent School District, which rented out its auditorium to Sound Vision and the American Freedom Defense Initiative. Their policy couldn't be more American - any law-abiding group who follows the rules and wishes to rent the Culwell Center can. Garland school officials say they're now reconsidering their Democratic approach. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.