Muslim Journal Distributor Sues PA Town Officials Over Arrest Threat

October 17, 2001 12:00 am

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PITTSBURGH–Citing religious liberty principles, the American Civil Liberties Union today filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against city officials in McKeesport over their May 2001 threat to arrest A.B. Abdul-Rabb, a long-time distributor of the Muslim Journal, unless he purchased a prohibitively expensive distribution permit.

McKeesport lifted the arrest-threat in late July after the ACLU vowed legal action, but the city’s refusal since then to cooperate in identifying the underlying law and to compensate Abdul-Rabb for monies lost prompted today’s lawsuit, according to Witold Walczak, director of the ACLU of Pittsburgh and Mr. Abdul-Rabb’s lawyer.

His client, Abdul-Rabb, added, “I want to make sure that neither this Mayor, nor another City official who in the future might dislike me, the Muslim Journal, or any other viewpoint will be able to interfere with people’s right to spread the gospel, be it Islam, Judaism, Christianity or some other faith.”

The complaint filed this morning in the United States District Court in Pittsburgh alleges that McKeesport officials violated Abdul-Rabb’s First Amendment right of free expression and the right to practice his religion.

The ACLU is seeking a declaration that the City’s actions were unconstitutional, an injunction against any laws that unconstitutionally restrain literature distribution, compensation for monies lost during the arrest threat, and attorneys’ fees.

Abdul-Rabb noted that he does not profit personally from the newspaper sales. “All money collected from Journal sales goes back into purchasing more newspapers and Islamic texts, which are then used to spread the Muslim gospel,” he said.

The Muslim Journal is published near Chicago by the Muslim-American Society and is distributed nationwide. Abdul-Rabb has been the local McKeesport distributor for more than 30 years. Abdul-Rabb either sells or gives away the Muslim Journal to interested people in McKeesport public areas. He said he uses the activity to educate people about Islam.

Prior to the May arrest threat, McKeesport officials had never interfered with his distribution activities. But in late May, 2001, a McKeesport official threatened to arrest Abdul-Rabb and his associate for distributing the religious newspaper without a permit. He told Abdul-Rabb that a 10-day permit would cost $250, a fee that neither the distributor nor the newspaper publisher could afford.

Abdul-Rabb’s attempts to clarify the law and to lift the arrest threat were unsuccessful. Not until the ACLU threatened to file suit in late July did McKeesport lift the arrest threat.

Unfortunately, since that time McKeesport officials have been completely uncooperative with the ACLU’s request to identify the relevant permitting laws and to compensate Abdul-Rabb for the money he lost in May, June and July. Three written requests for information about the law and for lost monies have been ignored.

“This case could have been resolved informally if McKeesport officials had simply cooperated in identifying the relevant permitting laws and then correcting any constitutional problems,” said Walczak. “But their stony silence in the face of repeated requests for information and compensation has forced this lawsuit.”

The case is A.B. Abdul-Rabb v. City of McKeesport.

The brief in the case is online at:

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