City may get tough with meeting disruptions
Red Wing will consider leading the state toward more aggressive anti-protest laws at public meetings. The council voted 4-3 Monday, Nov. 27, 2017, to complete the draft of a disorderly conduct ordinance that could be invoked to arrest passive resistance protesters who interfere with regular meetings.
This ordinance would go above and beyond the city's current rules of procedure which states: "No person shall be allowed to delay or interrupt the proceedings or refuse to obey the orders or rules of the council ... Any person can be removed from the meeting for failure to comply with the ruling of the chair for violation of these rules. The police chief or his designee shall function as a sergeant of arms to assist the presiding officer in enforcing this rule."
Citing some issues in the past with long-winded or verbally aggressive citizens, seasoned members of the council were the most supportive of this measure. Newer members, who contended this was a solution looking for a problem, said that the current meeting laws are sufficient to handle disruptive persons.
"There's no rush to create laws that we don't necessarily need," said Council member John Becker. He is in his first term.
The proposed legislation was inspired by a Minnesota Supreme Court decision regarding the case of Robin Hensel who was arrested for refusing to remove her seat during a Little Falls city council meeting where her use of protest signs was criticised.
The Supreme Court in this case threw decision-making to the Legislature, stating that the current statute invoked to arrest Hensel was "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."
Some council members questioned whether a local ordinance was necessary, given that the Legislature may address this issue statewide.
Council member Dan Munson specifically questioned how the proposed ordinance in Red Wing would change the behavior of a police officer being called into a meeting to address a normal disruption.
"If somebody wanted to throw themselves on the ground and be passive ... the rules and policy really would not back the officer's use of force or physically picking him up," Police Chief Roger Pohlman said. "This clearly provides us an option to act appropriately when called upon.
"Yes when they get very boisterous, very offensive, threatening and other things, fifth-degree assault can come into play and there's other charges that are available to us. But for that passive protester that could disrupt the meeting or continue to talk and not be quiet, it might not rise to the other options available to us. I just find comfort that if my officers are called to a commission meeting, this does clarify our options for action."
Legal counsel was on-hand to explain the work that went into drafting the proposed ordinance. City attorney representative Amy Mace said that her firm Rupp, Anderson, Squires & Waldspurger was not asked to examine the pros and cons of implementing such a plan. Their instructions were to draft a more narrow version of the language, specific to city meetings, while remaining constitutional.
The council intends to get a second legal opinion on the document before voting a second time.
Before the decision was made, citizen Alan Muller got up to say "people disrupt meetings — people behave aggressively — when they feel that behaving politely and with restraint isn't working. This is a feeling that Robin Hensel had about the Little Falls city council. She was backed into a corner. She could either concede or behave a little bit more aggressively."
He continued, "I think I'm not the only one in Red Wing who thinks that this council is behaving in an increasingly authoritarian manner ... It's very difficult to get your attention or to get you to consider anything other than points of view that you've already adopted in some private process."
Council member Evan Brown earlier in the meeting said he found no indication that any Minnesota municipality has adopted such an ordinance.