How a Chair Brought Down Minnesota's Law Against Disturbing Government Meetings
By Matt McKinney
It's no longer illegal in Minnesota to disturb a public meeting, the state Supreme Court has ruled, reversing the conviction of a Little Falls woman who was charged with disorderly conduct for protesting before the City Council.
The 54-year-old law was deemed overly broad and potentially criminalized free speech, the court ruled Wednesday.
"I feel like justice was finally served," said Robin Hensel, whose refusal to move her chair at a 2013 Little Falls City Council meeting was at the heart of the court's decision.
Hensel, a grandmother and peace activist who frequently protests at Camp Ripley, said she never thought she would actually get charged when she moved a folding chair to the open space between the public galley and the City Council's dais.
Her reasons for sitting there were part of a long-standing practice of challenging city officials over civil rights issues, which in the past have included the right to post numerous antiwar signs in her yard.
Hensel said she wanted to sit in the same area that others had used when, at an earlier meeting, they were invited to come forward after complaining that they couldn't see past large signs Hensel carried. The signs depicted dead and deformed children that Hensel claimed were the victims of U.S. bombing campaigns.
On the night she was charged, Hensel didn't bring the signs, but carried a U.S. flag and was aware she was drawing a potential confrontation.
"All I wanted to do was sit there quietly within eyeshot range of them and look them in the eye so that their conscience would be pricked," she said Wednesday. A video of the incident shows that it was peaceful and that she eventually agreed to leave the chambers with an officer of the law.
Hensel's attorney first tried to have the charge dismissed, arguing that the statute was unconstitutional, but a district court upheld the law saying it was Hensel's behavior, and not the content of her message, that caused the disturbance. A district court jury found her guilty.
The state court of appeals later upheld the conviction.
In its ruling Wednesday, the Supreme Court sided with Hensel, saying: "The statute is broad and ambiguous, prohibiting any conduct or speech that 'disturbs an assembly or meeting,' whether expressive or not. An individual could violate the statute by, for example, wearing an offensive t-shirt, using harsh words in addressing another person, or even raising one's voice in a speech."
Justices G. Barry Anderson and Lorie Skjerven-Gildea said in dissent that they agreed the law was so broad that it potentially criminalized free speech, but said it could be fixed and should not be thrown out completely. The majority said the court should not rewrite laws and invalidated it instead.
Attorney Kevin Riach, who argued Hensel's case before the state Supreme Court, said the court's decision was a vindication.
"Most broadly, the health of our democracy depends on those who express dissent, who go against the grain, who speak out to hold the government accountable," said Riach, an attorney with the Minneapolis law firm of Fredrikson & Byron who represented Hensel pro bono. "That's the clash of voices that makes our democracy function, and I think that's what our court recognized."
Nathan Midolo, an attorney who represented the state, called the ruling disappointing, adding that its impact is being evaluated.
The mayor of Little Falls could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Calls to two City Council members also were not immediately returned.
Disturbing a public meeting was one of three definitions of disorderly conduct under state statute 609.72. The others include brawling and engaging in offensive conduct or language.
In a separate case, Hensel sued the city of Little Falls in 2012 after the city ordered her to remove large signs on her front yard that protested corporate greed and war. Local residents complained and the city told Hensel that the signs violated a local ordinance. Hensel argued that the city's "Support Our Troops" signs violated the same law. The case was eventually settled, and the city agreed to pay $39,500 for Hensel's legal fees. Hensel also won the right to rent advertising on a bench placed near City Hall.
That case and others have won Hensel supporters but also many critics, including 413 people who signed a petition calling for her removal from Little Falls, a city of about 8,700 residents in central Minnesota. The petitioners, among other things, say Hensel's signs and her continued civil rights debates have hurt the quality of life in the city. One woman claimed she moved to nearby St. Cloud to restore her sanity.
Hensel, who plans to protest at Camp Ripley with about 75 others on Sunday, said she's unbowed.
"If we can't speak out against what we feel is wrong, and be allowed to speak out, we are headed for real trouble in our streets," said Hensel.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
(c)2017 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)