MN court: No free speech right to disrupt a meeting

Robin Hensel, shown here in 2012, has had several battles with Little Falls officials over constitutional issues.  Tom Baker | MPR News file

Take note, people who demonstrate and disrupt government meetings. You don’t have a free speech right to do so, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled today.

The court ruled in the case of Robin Hensel of Little Falls, Minn., who “disrupted” a City Council work session in June 2013. She showed up with signs and wearing a sign on her head. She regularly films the sessions and posts the videos to YouTube.

Today’s ruling has the details of what happened when she refused to sit in a public gallery at a City Council meeting:

On June 7, Hensel arrived at the meeting and seated herself in the front row of the public-seating area. There were no tables and chairs between the dais and the public seating area that morning.

Before the meeting was called to order, Hensel twice moved her chair forward into the area in between the public-seating area and dais where council members were seated. Hensel asserted that she moved her seat forward because of what she believed to be unequal treatment based on events at the June 3 city council meeting.

The first time Hensel moved her seat forward, the public works director moved the chair back and told Hensel, “We set the council chambers up and the chair stays here, please.” The second time, the police chief asked Hensel to move her chair back to the public-seating area.

She refused, and an exchange of comments ensued among Hensel, the police chief, the city attorney, and city council members. Hensel said that she would compromise, and moved her chair partway back to the public-seating area.

When she refused to move her chair any further, the police chief removed her from the meeting. As a result of Hensel’s conduct before the June 7 meeting, the council was unable to start the meeting on time.

She was cited for disorderly conduct under a Minnesota law which specifically defines disorderly conduct when a meeting is disturbed.

A jury convicted Hensel in December 2014 after a judge refused to allow First Amendment issues to be brought up as a defense.

“Viewed in context, the statute can be understood by persons of common intelligence as prohibiting conduct that could be expected to interfere with the ability to conduct a meeting,” Court of Appeals Judge Michelle Ann Larkin wrote in today’s opinion (pdf). “The fact that [the statute] does not specifically itemize what conduct disturbs a meeting does not compel the conclusion that it is vague.”

“Notably, laws prohibiting the disturbance of public meetings are neither unique to Minnesota nor of recent vintage. And such laws are generally construed to ‘proscribe only those disruptive physical actions and verbal utterances that are in violation of the normal customs and rules of governance, implicit or explicit, of the meeting,’” Larkin wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel.

The Court has made clear that “the First Amendment does not guarantee the right to communicate one’s views at all times and places or in any manner that may be desired.”

Time, place, or manner restrictions are “valid provided that they are justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech, that they are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and that they leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information.”

Larkin said there are other ways for citizens to voice their opinions and exercise free speech than disrupting a meeting.

Several years ago Hensel and Little Falls fought over peace signs in her yard.

She put signs in her yard that said “Occupy Wall Street,” “Back the 99 Percent” or “Boycott Monsanto.”

She challenged an ordinance that limited signs in Little Falls yards to 8 square feet, and objected to a larger “Support Our Troops” sign in town.

That case was settled out of court.