Editorial roundup: ‘Disrupting’ public meetings too tricky for court to define

Published 5:45 pm Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Minnesota Supreme Court last week threw out parts of a law few people knew existed.

The statute is part of a disorderly conduct law that bars people from disturbing public meetings. The case stems from a 2013 City Council meeting in Little Falls where a woman was escorted out and charged with disorderly conduct after she refused to sit in the gallery and held a protest sign. Robin Hensel was later convicted.

Hensel is the type of person many city councils, county boards and school boards across the state deal with. A gadfly who annoys public officials over disagreements they have with local governance.

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For elected officials such residents can be frustrating as they try to do their jobs.

And beyond annoyances, elected officials may be anxious about potential violence at a meeting as the level of public discourse in the country deteriorates.

But allowing officials to have someone arrested and charged with disrupting a public meeting, even though they have not threatened violence, is a violation of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court justices ruled the statute was overly broad and could be used in “countless ways” by elected officials who wanted to quiet critics.

Local officials could decide someone is disruptive if they raise their voice at a meeting during a debate or if they bring a sign or wear an offensive T-shirt. That kind of potential restriction against free speech is unacceptable.

As far as the potential for violence at a meeting, elected officials can still use other statutes to deal with people who actually threaten or commit violence or are acting in a way that makes them an imminent threat.

Elected bodies can and do use rules that try to keep meetings orderly, but democracy is often messy and public meetings can at times be raucous. That’s not a crime. Creating laws that violate people’s ability to speak and hold their officials accountable is unacceptable and unconstitutional.

Why it matters:

The state Supreme Court made the right decision in throwing out a law that bars people from disturbing public meetings.

— Mankato Free Press, Sept. 18

About Editorial Roundup

Editorials from newspapers around the state of Minnesota.

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