Resident sues city of Little Falls to fight for her rights of free speech
A Little Falls grandmother who has taken issue with Little Falls regarding the city forcing her to take down political signs on her property will now take the city to court.
Robin Hensel filed a lawsuit Monday against the city in U.S. District Court of Minnesota maintaining the city violated her free speech, First Amendment rights.
Hensel received pro bono help from attorney, Larry A. Frost of Paladin Law in Bloomington and Bruce Fein, an attorney who specializes in constitutional and international law, who also had served as a top justice department official under the Reagan administration.
The lawsuit lists the defendants as the city of Little Falls; Gerald Lochner and Lori Kasella, Little Falls interim city administrators; and Little Falls Police Chief Greg Schirmers. The complaint seeks damages and other appropriate relief for violations of the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
Hensel’s issues with the city began last fall, when she was told to remove her political signs from her yard because it was against the city’s ordinance. Hensel removed the signs that included sayings that revolved around the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Hensel filed a complaint on Feb. 3 with the city requesting that the city remove the “We Support Our Troops” banner from the bank as it violated the city’s ordinance regarding signs in the historic district.
Hensel’s letter to the city, said, “This should be reviewed by the city’s planning and zoning commission. In that it (the banner) was put up in error, the council should address this and correct it without me pursuing this further. I have received death threats toward myself and my family and cannot risk my safety and their’s ... One individual should not need to risk their life, to have city council uniformly enforce the sign ordinance.”
Kasella, who did not return phone calls regarding the lawsuit, said in February that the planning and zoning commission were reviewing the sign ordinance. To date, the ordinance has not yet been approved.
Calls also were made to the city’s attorney, Toni Wetzel of Wetzel Law Firm in Little Falls that were not returned. However, a secretary at the law firm said that they would not be commenting on the lawsuit.
On Tuesday, Hensel said that the city has continued to go against their own sign ordinance. She said just last weekend the city allowed banners at three different locations for the Little Falls School’s Day of Caring event. Hensel said to her knowledge a few businesses and one resident have violated the sign ordinance.
Hensel said her fight with city hall is for her to further the causes that are dear to her heart. Hensel, who said she is disabled, had to create signs with sayings that she believes in and has placed them in her yard and her van because she cannot physically travel to different Occupy Wall Street or peace events.
In the complaint filed against the city, it states: “The city of Little Falls has no excuse in law for wrongfully harassing a 58-year-old grandmother because she colorfully expressed an unpopular viewpoint on her own property. And that is exactly what the defendant city did. Indeed, at every turn, the defendants brandished their government authority to suppress or burden the plaintiff’s viewpoints because of hostility to their ideas and to facilitate and promote viewpoints they found agreeable.”
Frost said when he read about Hensel’s issue with the city in the Star Tribune they began talking and he agreed to represent her.
“I do not agree with Robin’s viewpoints, but I agree in the right of free speech,” Frost said. “The city was being a bully and unfairly targeting her because of the content of her signs. I want to give her a hand in fighting city hall, specifically the right of free speech.”
Frost said the city treated Hensel differently by allowing businesses to use signs to advertise their freedom of speech and political views.
“The city is regulating the rights of free speech ... and it has no reason why they should limit the political points of view,” said Frost. “Little Falls is so far out in left field that you can’t see them from home plate.
“Bruce is very confident that this is a losing case for Little Falls. The city is in a bad position and have done some bad things. They don’t know the law.”
Hensel said before the lawsuit she tried to get approval from the city to advertise on one of the city benches to be placed by city hall. She wanted to rent the bench so she could offer her commentary of government issues. Hensel said the city council voted down the issue.
Frost said again, this was a violation of Hensel’s first amendment rights.
Schirmers is listed in the complaint regarding the alleged online threats made to Hensel about her signs/political views. Frost said the threats were investigated, but after various follow-ups of phone calls and emails, police never responded back to him. Frost said that he wanted to get the names of the suspects threatening Hensel so he could file a complaint against them.
Hensel has been concerned for herself, her children and her grandchildren, as of one the threats said “the children in your home will not be safe.” Hensel said she is so concerned that she had to make the tough decision and retire as a foster grandmother.
“If something would happen while they were in my care,” said Hensel. “... I cannot do it anymore so I had to retire.”