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Minneapolis considers restricting demonstrations
On March 18, 2007, 4,000 people marched down Hennepin Avenue and rallied in Loring Park to demonstrate their opposition to the war in Iraq. Minneapolis City Council member Cam Gordon spoke at the event. Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak also attended the demonstration and complimented the engaged citizens who took part, adding that “There should be even more people out here.”
However, all 4,000 protesters would have been arrested for demonstrating without a permit if the Ordinance for Public Rallies currently being considered by city officials were signed into law. A self-titled Free Speech Work Group that includes Mayor Rybak and City Councilman Cam Gordon has been meeting to discuss the new ordinance, which came at the request of the City Attorney’s office. The stated purpose of the Free Speech Work group is “to protect the right of freedom of expression, and to protect public safety and access to public spaces.” Yet the proposed ordinance would place new restrictions on political rallies in Minneapolis.
The group had met several times behind closed doors until Teresa Nelson, Free Speech Work Group member and American Civil Liberties Union representative, alerted community activists about the proposed ordinance. On Wednesday, August 9, 20 activists packed a City Hall conference room to observe the Free Speech Work group and to voice their opposition to the ordinance.
“Despite their name, this group has taken no action to protect our right to free speech,” said Jess Sundin of the Anti-War Committee. “Instead they have been considering a new permit ordinance that is a direct attack on activism in Minneapolis.”
If passed, the new ordinance would require a permit for groups of 25 people or more who have gathered to express views or opinions. Attending a non-permitted public rally would be a misdemeanor offense. A police officer would be able to revoke a permit on the spot if he or she determined that the conditions of the permit had been violated. Anyone continuing to engage in the demonstration would be subject to arrest. Permit holders would also be responsible for any property damage that occurred during the public rally.
At Wednesday’s meeting, city officials distributed a revised version of the ordinance. The original draft would have required a permit for 20 or more people, and imposed a bond or insurance certificate requirement on the permit holder, a provision that has been dropped. However, additional language expressly prohibits demonstrations in downtown Minneapolis from 7-9 a.m. or 4-6 p.m.
The City Attorney staff person who drafted the ordinance admitted that, “The RNC (2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul) is the reason this came up. Other host cities have done this.” An activist was quick to point out that other host cities have not been good models for protecting free speech, and that New York City is currently involved in a multi-million dollar lawsuit for its treatment of protesters during the 2004 RNC.
Gordon apologized to community activists “for not doing a better job of keeping you informed about what we are doing.” He suggested that the ordinance would help protesters ensure that they have a space reserved, and that city officials and activists could work together to determine appropriate times and locations for protests.
Police Chief Tim Dolan asserted that a permit requirement would assist officers with directing traffic and monitoring protest activities.
Councilman Paul Ostrow thanked the activists for their concerns and reminded them that “the purpose of the ordinance is to protect freedom of speech during the RNC.”
However, many activists find the proposed ordinance unnecessary and problematic. Attorney Bruce Nestor sent a letter to the Free Speech Work Group on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild which read, in part, “We are not aware of any past problems which would create a need for a new ordinance. Any permit scheme would become a legal, financial, and bureaucratic obstacle to the exercise of free speech in Minneapolis. Ordinances already exist for marches and parades on public streets, so there simply is no need for this proposed ordinance.”
Nestor also warned that it is unconstitutional to require a permit for groups engaging in political expression, but not for other groups of a similar size or similar burden on public resources.
“If there are 25 people gathered in a park or sidewalk associating with each other without needing a permit, why should they need a permit only because they want to express political opinions?” he asked. “For example, in our view, this ordinance would have to be applied so that in September 2008, any state delegation attending the RNC would have to obtain a permit before using the public sidewalks to go outside in a group of 25 or more for drinks and dinner.”
Other groups are concerned that the proposed ordinance would negatively affect their ability to organize demonstrations that include civil disobedience. In the past, such demonstrations have included protesters who do not break the law, but remain present to support those who do. If passed, the ordinance would put everyone in the vicinity at risk for arrest.
“Civil disobedience is an effective and important way to make change,” wrote Sundin in a letter. “This ordinance would empower police to revoke a permit for the entire demonstration whenever such actions take place, subjecting everyone present to a misdemeanor offense. This is unacceptable.”
Activist groups are also concerned about the time required to obtain a permit. Large rallies are typically planned one or two months in advance, but groups also organize emergency demonstrations to immediately respond to world or community events.
“If a county is bombed or the president announces a visit to our city, we need to respond quickly,” said Sundin.
Immigrant rights advocates and anti-police brutality activists frequently organize protests immediately following an immigration raid or an incident of police violence. The permit requirement would make it nearly impossible for them to gain approval in time for a rally within 24 hours.
During the Free Speech Work Group meeting, three of the activists gathered had the opportunity to speak. Marie Braun of Women Against Military Madness, Deb Konechne of the Welfare Rights Committee, and Sundin all denounced the proposed ordinance and urged the Free Speech Work Group to abandon it entirely.
Council Member Ralph Remington, who chaired the meeting, agreed that he “didn’t see the need for a new ordinance.”
The ordinance is currently in the early stages of consideration. To move forward, a City Council committee would need to approve it. Then it would have to be voted into law by a majority of City Council members.
A coalition of community activists has already met to discuss next steps for opposing the ordinance. “Our goal is to keep it from being considered at all,” said Braun.
©2007 Katrina Plotz