Viewpoint: Everyone loses when a single voice is silenced

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By Jody Scott Olson, Little Falls, Minnesota

In response to "City may get tough with meeting disruptions" (RE, Nov. 29, 2017), it would be a mistake for Red Wing and other Minnesota cities to cite the case of Robin Hensel and the city of Little Falls as justification for changing their meeting ordinances. In fact, it should serve as a cautionary tale about the legal consequences of a city's disregard for the constitutional rights of its citizens.

What few realize is that when Hensel arrived at the Little Falls City Council meeting on June 3, 2013—with a single sandwich board sign and tall hat—her behavior was in no way disruptive. She was, however, dressed in an outlandish costume with a provocative war protest sign in a town that borders Camp Ripley's military base. City officials and attending community members were unabashed in making their disapproval known.

Video footage from the meeting shows the disruptions came from those reacting to Hensel's attire and sign, not from Hensel herself. The footage also shows city committee member Linda Burgraff, pick up Hensel's lawfully placed protest sign and walk away with it. Hensel had to demand its return.

Yet, Little Falls city officials and the police officer in attendance that night didn't find Burgraff's conduct to be disruptive nor did they respond in any way to the illegal seizure of Hensel's lawfully placed private property.

What constitutes disruption?

What transpired at that council meeting in itself raises important issues and questions. Do other people's reactions to an unpopular view constitute a disruption? If so, whom do we fault as the disruptor? If we were to allow people's reactions to govern what constitutes a public meeting disruption, couldn't everyone's view be silenced by the arrival of enough vocal objectors?

To add broader context to the reactions toward Hensel by city officials, it should be noted that Hensel had previously won a Freedom of Speech lawsuit against Little Falls; their very public contempt for her was palpable. In addition, video footage from numerous previous council meetings show city officials shouting over Hensel's three-minute public comment period when they disapproved of her viewpoint.

In each instance, Hensel respectfully asked to be granted the length of time equal to that of council's disruption but was systematically denied.

Censorship based on viewpoint by government officials is blatantly unconstitutional. Worse yet, the local paper only reported that Hensel demanded additional public comment time, without providing any context by also reporting the boisterously intrusive harassment executed by officials.

Little Falls city officials have also consider Hensel's chronic filming of their meetings to be a disruptive nuisance, yet it has been the utter lack of transparency on the part of the local newspaper and the cable television station that triggered Hensel's tireless effort to document the facts hidden from the public by local media outlets; whose central mission is presumed by the community to be an earnest commitment to transparency.

It should then be of no surprise to learn that the man who complained that Hensel's hat blocked his view during the June 3 council meeting was the sitting mayor's husband, George VanRisseghem. The local news editor, who was in attendance that night, reported that VanRisseghem complained that he couldn't see and that he and members of the public were subsequently allowed to move out of the public gallery to sit

near council.

If people were indeed having difficulty seeing around one large hat this certainly sounded like a perfectly reasonable decision for city officials to make. Yet what the local paper failed to report was that there were only seven community members who attended that day, which meant that George VanRissinghem and the entire public

audience had roughly 60 empty chairs within public gallery to choose from. Virtually everyone, including George VanRisseghem, had access to an empty front-row seat.

Yet, Little Falls City Council not only invited him to move out of the public gallery, away

from Hensel, council invited everyone in attendance that night to leave the public gallery—everyone Hensel and her friend Theresa.

Council adjourned abruptly and reconvened several nights later where Hensel returned to passively protest council's earlier mistreatment of her by moving her chair out of the public gallery to sit where George VanRisseghemand others sat days earlier. She was arrested.

Since the overturn of Hensel's criminal conviction on constitutional grounds, Little Falls city officials have passed a flurry of ordinances addressing and restricting public conduct when the original issue, and subsequent legal expenditure of tax dollars, could have been avoided entirely had officials simply upheld existing policy on public viewing.

There was no legitimate reason for city officials to violate their public viewing policy except to execute a grandstanding, counter-protest in objection to Hensel's unintrusive, peaceful and lawful demonstration with a sandwich board sign and colorful outfit.

What people and leaders often fail to understand about freedom of speech is that the First Amendment strategically tethers everyone together. A decision to restrict or silence those whose beliefs make our blood boil is a decision to completely forfeit our own voice by an equal measure on matters important to us.

From delight to dismay

Once again, the city of Little Falls can be looked to when communities are entertaining restricting free speech.

When I first moved to Little Falls, Hensel's yard was brimming with war protest signs. After some time the city responded and decided to enforce a sign ordinance that had previously been ignored.

To the delight of city officials and many, many community members, her protest signs had to come down but so did the prominently displayed "Support the Troops" sign and "garage sale" signs along with a plethora of others.

While many believed that it was well worth their own forfeit to sanitize the city of Hensel's loud, outspoken political viewpoints, that sentiment changed when Christmas rolled around. As community members busied themselves decorating their yards in celebration of the blessed holiday, they soon learned that, because government can't censor free speech based on viewpoint, in the eyes of the law a sign is a sign—even if its says "Merry Christmas."

Those "signs" were equally banned, even in a community that views itself as largely Christian.

Letters began appearing in the local paper from community members who were now crying foul. Suddenly the weight of their own rules applied to messages that were deeply meaningful and dear to their own beliefs and values; just as they had to Hensel's.

What community members sacrificed in their effort to silence Hensel's values, beliefs and First Amendment rights was no longer as satisfying when their voice too was completely extinguished on matters that were highly personal and deeply important to them.