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Ruling on Hensel lawsuit a mixed bag

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A federal judge ruled earlier this month in a 2012 free speech lawsuit against the city of Little Falls. The roots of the conflict began in 2011 when Robin Hensel, 60, set up political signs in her yard.

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The Little Falls woman claimed her constitutional rights were violated when the city forced her to take her signs down and turned down her request for to set up a bench with an advertising message in the city.

United States District Judge Richard H. Kyle ruled on the case on Jan. 8.

He granted Hensel’s motion relating to Count II of the third amended complaint as it relates to the city’s old bench ordinance. A jury trial will be scheduled to determine Hensel’s damages with respect to that claim. In all other respects, her motion was denied, according to the court ruling.

Kyle granted the city’s motion on Count I of the third amended complaint and as to Count II of the third amended complaint insofar as it contains the city’s new bench ordinance and those claims were dismissed with prejudice. In all other respects the motion was denied.

Hensel and the attorneys for the respective sides reacted with differing perspectives to the court ruling.

“I will say we won half of the lawsuit,” Hensel said Friday. “My legal team is seriously considering an appeal.”

Larry Frost, Bloomington attorney who represented Hensel, said the city kept amending its sign and bench ordinances as the lawsuit was progressing through the court system.

“She’s batting .500,” he said of his client. “In the majors (Major League Baseball) you’re doing pretty good.

“We think there were errors of law in judge’s ruling. We think we have a good faith basis to appeal.”

Paul D. Reuvers, the lawyer who represented the city of Little Falls, said Hensel’s suit revolved around the sign ordinance and her contention the city was out to get her. Those claims, he said, were thrown out. That was the major dispute, he said, adding that the bench ordinance issue was somewhat of a throw-in issue.

“It’s a significant victory for the city,” Reuvers said.

The court, in its ruling, concluded that the city’s new sign ordinance is “a valid time, place and manner restriction — it is content-neutral and serves substantial government interests without unreasonably limiting alternative avenues of communication.

Addressing the city’s old bench ordinance Judge Kyle wrote, “the court agrees with Hensel that the old bench ordinance cannot withstand scrutiny.

“Hensel is entitled to summary judgment on Count II of the third amended complaint insofar as it concerns the old bench ordinance,” he wrote. His opinion went on to state “the court concludes the new bench ordinance — like the sign ordinance — is content-neutral time, place and manner regulation and Hensel’s moving target allegations have not provided any clear basis to undermine that conclusion.”

The two attorneys also had different perspectives in terms of Hensel’s claims for damages relating to the city’s old bench ordinance.

Reuvers said Hensel did not suffer any damages relating to the old bench ordinance. Frost said a person always suffers damages when their First Amendment rights are breached.

Frost also told a reporter that Hensel has received “death threats or serious threats” about three times since the lawsuit was filed. The most recent, he said, took place at 2 a.m. Friday, Jan. 17, when she received a call and a mail voice said “You’re still in town. We’re coming to get you.”

MIKE O’ROURKE may be reached at 855-5860 or mike.orourke@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MikeORourkenews.

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Mike O'Rourke
Mike O'Rourke began his career at the Brainerd Dispatch in 1978 as a general assignment reporter. He was named city editor in 1981 and associate editor in 1999. He covers politics and writes features and editorials.
(218) 855-5860
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