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Court voids law on public meeting disturbances

ST. PAUL — Minnesota's longstanding law against disturbing public meetings violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, Sept. 13.

That law, first passed in 1963, said an action that "disturbs an assembly or meeting" in the reasonable knowledge that it "will tend to alarm, anger or disturb others or provoke an assault or breach of the peace" qualified as disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor.

But in its review of a woman's conviction for holding signs with graphic images of dismembered children at a Little Falls City Council meeting, the Supreme Court found that law was "overbroad" and potentially criminalized free speech.

"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," wrote Justice David Stras. There were "countless ways" the law could "prohibit and chill protected expression."

The law might have been constitutional if it were more narrowly written, Stras wrote.

Justice Barry Anderson and Chief Justice Lorie Gildea dissented from the ruling, arguing that the Supreme Court should pare back any excesses of the law against disturbing meetings rather than declaring it unconstitutional. That's what the Minnesota Supreme Court did in a 1978 challenge to another part of the disorderly conduct law: a prohibition on "offensive, obscene, or abusive language tending reasonably to arouse alarm, anger, or resentment in others." The 1978 court found that part of the law to be unconstitutional, but rather than tossing it out entirely, the court ruled that it only forbade so-called " fighting words": language intended to provoke confrontations.

Stras' ruling, joined by a majority of the court, said the changes needed to make the law against disturbing meetings constitutional would be so significant the result would bear "little resemblance to the statute that the Legislature actually passed."

The part of the disorderly conduct law making it a misdemeanor to brawl or fight remains constitutional.

Robin Hensel, the woman charged with disturbing the Little Falls City Council meeting, will have her conviction vacated.

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

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