MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that part of a disorderly conduct law that bars people from disturbing public meetings is unconstitutional and violates the First Amendment, a decision that some say will have little impact on cities but others call a victory for free speech at a time when public dissent is critical.
The ruling comes in the case of a Little Falls woman who was escorted from a City Council meeting in 2013 and charged with disorderly conduct after she refused to sit in the gallery. The majority found the statute under which Robin Hensel was charged and convicted is unconstitutional because it’s overbroad and can’t be reasonably narrowed.
The justices said there are “countless ways” in which the statue could chill protected speech. They invalidated the law and ordered that Hensel’s conviction be vacated.
Hensel’s attorney, Kevin Riach, said the ruling was a win for free speech.
“We’re at a time in our history where our democratic norms and values are under attack and it’s critical that people be able to publicly dissent and hold their government accountable,” he said. “This decision takes a tool away from those who would seek to squash that dissent.”
Scott Flaherty, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said other statutes can be used to address disruptive behavior and this ruling doesn’t legalize the broad interruption of meetings. He also said the decision provides a road map if lawmakers choose to rewrite the law to pass constitutional muster.
Nathan Midolo, an attorney who represented the state, called the ruling disappointing and said its impact is being evaluated.
Patricia Beety, attorney for the League of Minnesota Cities, said it’s too soon to tell whether lawmakers will revise the statute. But she said most of the time, cities deal with disruptions and maintaining order through warnings or their own procedures and rules of decorum, so she doesn’t expect this ruling to have any significant, immediate impact.
Hensel has a history of being at odds with Little Falls leaders and sued the city when it forced her to remove signs from her property.
Wednesday’s ruling stems from a 2013 incident at City Hall. Hensel went to a City Council meeting and sat in the public gallery with signs depicting dead and deformed children. She also wore a sign on her head that read: “Speech restricted here.” When others complained of obstructed view, they were allowed to sit between the gallery and the councilors. Because of Hensel’s actions, the meeting was adjourned and rescheduled.
When it reconvened, Hensel placed a chair in the space where others sat days earlier and refused to move. She was escorted from the room, charged with disorderly conduct and convicted.
Hensel said Wednesday it was a “slap in the face to … free speech” when city leaders forbade her from sitting in that area and the Supreme Court “was clearly able to see that what I was doing was demanding equal treatment.”
She argued on appeal that the disorderly conduct statute violated the First Amendment. The state argued that the law doesn’t ban all conduct at meetings, but only conduct done with intent of causing a disturbance.
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.”
On dissent, Justices G. Barry Anderson and Lorie Skjerven Gildea agreed the law is unconstitutionally overbroad, but said it could be narrowed and shouldn’t be invalidated. But the majority said the court shouldn’t rewrite laws.
Hensel, meanwhile, said she’ll continue to speak out for change.
“The way to get justice for all, equal treatment for all and to change how our government operates is to get people to do exactly what I have done,” she said. “When you put signs in your yard and you speak at a public meeting, you are wearing your convictions on your shoulder.”