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Minnesota has no law about disrupting public meetings. Will Minneapolis council protests change that?

Police escort out a protester from a Minneapolis City Council meeting as he points
Kyle Stokes
Security officers removing an audience member from the Minneapolis City Council meeting on Thursday, March 9. “I'll subtweet your ass!” the protester shouted at council member Michael Rainville as he left the room.

A state Supreme Court ruling invalidated Minnesota’s law on disorderly conduct in public meetings. Some Minneapolis council members say it’s time for the state to fill the legal vacuum — but after recent protests, critics say the proposal’s timing is suspicious.

This story was originally published by MinnPost.

Ten years ago, a peace activist in Little Falls showed up to a city council meeting with giant signs depicting dead and deformed babies.

Robin Hensel’s act of protest shut down the meeting; her signs were blocking the audience’s view. When the council reconvened four days later, Hensel was back, and this time, a police officer escorted her from the meeting. A jury later convicted her of disorderly conduct.

But Hensel appealed. She argued the state’s “overbroad” law against disrupting public meetings violated her First Amendment rights — and the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed.

In 2017, justices reversed Hensel’s conviction and threw out the meeting-disruption law — leaving behind open legal questions about just how far members of a city council or school board in Minnesota can go to quell outbursts in their meetings.

Yes, Minnesota councils can and do remove disruptive audience members — but “I also can’t point you to a statute that says you can remove a person, and here’s the reasons why you can,” said Amber Eisenschenck, an attorney at the League of Minnesota Cities. “So it’s kind of a gray area.”

This is the gray area that, this week, some Minneapolis City Council members urged state lawmakers to clear up.

Are Minneapolis council members looking for statewide clarity — or stifling their critics?

By a 7-6 vote Thursday, a narrow majority of council members moved to ask the Legislature to “create clear guidance for lawful conduct at public meetings.” The council also voted, 7-5, to ask for tougher criminal penalties for threatening or assaulting a public official or employee.

Maintaining decorum in municipal meetings is a perennial issue across Minnesota, Eisenschenck said. Rochester, Alexandria and Orono are among the city councils that have dealt with meeting disruptions in the last year. If anything, Minnesota school boards have been bigger targets as districts navigate outrage over COVID-19 policies, LGBTQ+ inclusion and teaching a racially-inclusive history.

In Minneapolis, the votes also amount to a call for outside help. Some council members feel relations with their most vocal critics — both during and outside of their meetings — reached a new low two weeks ago: Loud, angry protests about the city’s plans to tear down the “Roof Depot” building in East Phillips forced the council to suspend its business for the second time in as many months.

The City Council’s votes did not change any laws; they are merely suggestions for state lawmakers. The motions also do not call for reinstating criminal penalties for disrupting a meeting that were invalidated in the Little Falls case, according to a statement from the city attorney’s office.

The council is asking the Legislature for “clarity, not just for Minneapolis, but for every public jurisdiction, about what is expected of an open meeting from both the members of the body and members of the public who attend,” the statement said.

But other council members questioned the timing of this request. They worried the votes were aimed at stifling legitimate concerns from critics of the Roof Depot project by targeting neighbors and activists in the mostly-Indigenous, Latino and Black neighborhood who oppose it.

“These amendments are a completely predictable response to mass protests that we typically see from Republicans,” council member Robin Wonsley said. “I’m actually disappointed to see it come from my colleagues.”

The Feb. 23 Minneapolis City Council meeting was interrupted by protests.

Is Minneapolis ‘backed into a corner by case law’?

To council vice president Linea Palmisano, who proposed Thursday’s resolutions, the contentious Roof Depot vote during the Feb. 23 meeting represented a “tipping point.” She said that some critics’ behavior during that meeting amounted to physical threats, “not peaceful protest.”

“Nobody felt safe in council chambers two weeks ago,” Palmisano said in an interview.

After the meeting concluded, three council members filed police reports over threats they allegedly received following the vote. One of those council members, LaTrisha Vetaw, said she has been granted a restraining order after an encounter with activist DJ Hooker on a downtown Minneapolis escalator that afternoon. Hooker filed a counter complaint against Vetaw.

“These amendments are a completely predictable response to mass protests that we typically see from Republicans. I’m actually disappointed to see it come from my colleagues.”
Robin Wonsley, Minneapolis City Council member

Palmisano said the council is weighing changes to its own safety practices, including posting sworn police officers at their meetings — an idea that she acknowledged is divisive among council members. Palmisano didn’t take a position on the idea, saying she hopes to build consensus. Currently, un-sworn security guards monitor the meetings.

Council rules already allow the presiding officer to order anyone “disrupting, interfering with, or disturbing the meeting” to leave.

But that Little Falls case looms large, Palmisano argued: The court’s ruling, and a lack of clarity in state statute can make council members reluctant to enforce these rules. The security officers are also not empowered to arrest anyone who doesn’t comply with that law.

“Instead of always being backed into a corner by case law … that makes us feel like we can’t ever close the meeting or limit a meeting in any way, we need to have clearly defined rules,” Palmisano said in an interview, “so that both people exercising their First Amendment rights and [the workings of] democracy can happen in the same room.”

Palmisano also pointed out that under the Minnesota Open Meeting Law, any council member who violates the statute is personally liable, and can face fines.

“I understand the uncertainty and maybe the hesitation from Minneapolis,” Eisenschenck said. “First Amendment litigation has been very active in recent years, so it could be more of a risk management strategy: ‘We don’t want to be sued for violating somebody’s First Amendment rights.’”

‘Why wasn’t this passed after right-wing extremists targeted you?’

Palmisano’s motions stirred a lengthy and deeply-personal discussion at a Tuesday council committee meeting — and it was difficult to disentangle debate on the open meetings motion from the call for harsher penalties for intimidating public officials.

Multiple council members reported facing threats in recent years: Andrew Johnson said he had to search for pipe bombs on his property. Lisa Goodman pointed out that the home of the council’s former president was vandalized in 2020. When Goodman herself faced protests on her lawn, she lauded her colleague from the neighboring ward, Jeremiah Ellison, for offering to come stay at her house.

Ellison, too, said he faced threats in 2020 — including, he said, a “dud” incendiary device at his back door. But he worried that if he joined three other council members in accepting a security detail, he’d be subject to the same scrutiny or mockery they faced for that choice.

On Tuesday, Ellison wondered bitterly if the council’s calls for new laws were moving forward because the members facing threats this time were more “likable.”

“I don’t know what’s changed here,” he said. “And I would like to know what our options are before we are potentially changing open meeting laws. If this is a state law change, what happens in those jurisdictions … those municipalities or school districts, where there is less hesitation to violate peoples’ First Amendment rights?”

Critical council members also expressed outrage at Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s comparison of protesters who opposed the Roof Depot demolition — a controversy steeped in a sensitive history of environmental injustice and hardball city politics — with right-wing extremists or white supremacist groups.

“It’s very dangerous,” said Wonsley, “to conflate … Black and Indigenous residents’ genuine and justified fear about a harmful city-led project with extreme violence.”

“Why is this bill not passed after right-wing extremists targeted you?” asked an activist who rose from the gallery to briefly take over Thursday’s meeting. “The comparison of right-wing extremists to people who are demanding clean air and are filming council members — why are we having this discussion now? … No one supports threatening public officials.” (The speaker didn’t give their name and declined comment to MinnPost after the meeting.)

In a letter to the council, longtime police reform activist Michelle Gross argued that the council already can set and enforce their own rules of decorum. In fact, council members ejected a member of the audience on Thursday for attempting to debate council member Michael Rainville from the gallery. (“I’ll subtweet your ass!” the critic shouted as he left.)

In that light, Palmisano’s proposal would weaken Minnesota’s Open Meetings Law unnecessarily, Gross said.

“If the city is successful in causing this amendment to become a state statute, it will create a dangerous and undemocratic criminalization of people attempting to redress their grievances to a city council [which] has been loathe to hear and consider input from members of the community,” wrote Gross, president of the organization Communities United Against Police Brutality.

What’s next?

Palmisano said her intent is to push Minnesota to create a legal framework that encourages a forum that’s open to a wide range of views and welcoming to people “who already don’t trust institutions of government [and] who already show up with some amount of trepidation … to protest in council chambers — which I absolutely endorse and think people should do.”

She said the meeting on Feb. 23 was the opposite of her goal: “Nobody felt comfortable in those rooms, and the people that were there to be absolutely terrible and disrupt the meeting on purpose were making it worse for everybody.”

Palmisano said she’s spoken with state lawmakers interested in authoring legislation in response to her proposals. They may need to act fast: the Legislature faces a bill-filing deadline at the end of the day Friday — though Palmisano hinted there may be an opening to introduce her idea later in the session.

This article first appeared on MinnPost and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.