It was a victory day for Little Falls resident Robin Hensel after a four-year battle fighting for her rights for free speech.
The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday to toss out a disorderly conduct law aimed at citizens who disrupt public meetings.
Hensel took her free speech rights case all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court after she was convicted of disorderly conduct for disturbing a Little Falls City Council meeting in June 2013.
"I finally feel vindicated," Hensel said of the supreme court ruling. "I knew in my heart that I didn't do anything wrong."
The case began when Hensel showed up to a city council meeting and sat in the front row of the gallery with signs depicting dead and deformed children, obstructing the view of those seated behind her. The council adjourned the meeting and rescheduled it four days later.
When the council reconvened in the same room, there were no tables or chairs and Hensel took a folding chair and placed it in the space previously occupied by the tables and chairs. Hensel refused multiple requests to return to sit in the public gallery at the meeting. Hensel challenged the council by demanding to see a policy that prohibited her from sitting there.
The city attorney warned Hensel that a police officer would remove her from the meeting room and issue her a ticket for disorderly conduct is she didn't return to the gallery. She was convicted for the conduct by a jury in December 2014 after a judge refused to allow the First Amendment issues to be brought up as a defense.
The supreme court had to determine whether the part of Minnesota's disorderly conduct statute prohibiting "disturbing" assemblies or meetings is unconstitutional under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Both the district court and court of appeals concluded the statute was constitutional after reviewing Hensel's case.
Hensel heard the news from her attorney Kevin Riach of Fredrikson & Byron in Minneapolis. Hensel said the city and county wasted a lot of money on the case, and she, too, spent a lot of money.
"I'm glad I stuck with this to the end," Hensel said. "I wouldn't have done anything different. I think the challenges are just beginning. I hope the city and county has realized now what a grave mistake they did. ... This whole thing has really affected my character."
Hensel said she continues to see her rights to free speech violated.
"It never ends and that is the sickening part," Hensel said. "If elected officials and staff, the council all of them cannot stand my viewpoints, well that's just tough.This is America. We are not in a foreign nation where we have to keep our mouths shut with your views. The Constitution applies to everyone equally, even me."
Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David Stras wrote the majority opinion, and the dissent was authored by Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea and Justice Barry Anderson. The court reversed the court of appeals decision and remanded the district court to vacate Hensel's disorderly conduct conviction. The supreme court evaluated Hensel's argument that the disturbance of a meeting statute is unconstitutionally overbroad, meaning it forbids protected speech. Hensel stated the statute could reach activities like storming out of a meeting, raising one's voice or brandishing signs or symbols that some find offensive.
"Given the myriad ways in which the state could enforce the statute against protected speech and expressive conduct, Hensel argues, the statute is substantially overbroad," Stras wrote.
The Minnesota statute for disturbing the peace includes "disturb(ing) an assembly or meeting, not unlawful in its character" in its list of conduct.
"Whoever does any of the following in a public or private place, including on a school bus, knowing, or having reasonable grounds to know that it will, or will tend to, alarm, anger or disturb others or provoke an assault or breach of the peace, is guilty of disorderly conduct, which is a misdemeanor," the statute reads.
The dissenting judge suggested revising the statute to take out "or having reasonable grounds to know" and adds "so long as such disturbance is caused by conduct and not speech" at the end.
The majority opinion found that approach lacking.
"After all, the shave-a-little-off-here and throw-in-a-few-words-there statute on which the dissent eventually settles may well be a more sensible statute, but at the end of the day, it bears little resemblance to the statute that the Legislature actually passed," Stras wrote.
The statute is broad and unambiguous, prohibiting any conduct or speech that "disturbs an assembly or meeting," whether expressive or not, it stated. It continued to state a person could violate the statute by wearing an offensive T-shirt, using harsh words in addressing another person, or even raising one's voice in a speech.
"A straightforward example illustrates the point," Stras wrote. "In this case, Hensel displayed signs with pictures of dead and deformed children during the first of the two Little Falls City Council meetings. Suppose that the state had prosecuted Hensel solely because of her decision to display the controversial signs at the first meeting, not her later decision to sit in the area between the gallery and the dais during the second meeting. Under such a scenario, the factfinder would need to disentangle whether the cause of the disruption was her decision to display the signs, which blocked the view of other members of the public, or the message on the signs, which contained graphic images. Yet in many cases, the answer is likely both, leaving the jury with the thorny task of attempting to differentiate between the two in a disorderly-conduct case.
"Even if the jury determines that the disruption was due to the conduct itself without regard to its underlying message, the disturbance-of-a-meeting-or-assembly statute would still regulate expressive conduct, opening the statute to serial as-applied challenges as new circumstances arise. No one in this case seriously disputes that Hensel's signs were a form of expressive conduct, if not speech itself, and so even under a narrowed statute, the First Amendment may still protect them."