Case history offers lessons in free speech and politics


Political speech is often negative, crude and inflammatory, and the 2005 race for the Minneapolis City Council was a prime example. The feud between two council members and citizens resulted in a lawsuit claiming that the city of Minneapolis and councilmen Paul Ostrow and Don Samuels impinged on the free speech rights of citizens critical of Samuels.

U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery ruled last week that the lawsuit against Ostrow and Samuels could proceed, though she dropped the city of Minneapolis and several other defendants from the case. Here’s the history:

After redistricting placed Samuels’ home in the fifth ward instead of the third ward he represented, Samuels ran for the seat occupied by Councilwoman Natalie Johnson Lee. The two squared off that fall for the fifth ward, and sparks flew as community activists chose sides. Samuels won the seat in 2005.

Booker Hodges, then a columnist for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, appeared regularly on a program on Minneapolis Television Network, a cable-access channel subsidized by the city. “Real State of the City,” hosted and produced by Al Flowers, aired an episode with Hodges that took issue with a statement made by Samuels at a community forum.

“I say all the time that my great-grandfather on both sides were mulatto men,” Samuels reportedly said, according to Minnesota Public Radio. “They were descended from the last slave in the family. Mulatto slaves. And the reason my family got a leg up on the people in our village in Jamaica is that we were in the big house. We saw homework done. They saw books read. They saw the piano lessons. That’s why my wife and I say, our house is the big house on our block. And we’re going to open it up to every kid on the block.”

Hodges and Flowers contended that the analogy was disrespectful to many in the African American community, and Hodges said the following on Flowers’ MTN program:

To me the solution is ultimately all the things we sit here talking about, whether it be economic development, which is job creation, people like Council Member Samuels, you know it’s simple. We as a people, one in Minneapolis, have to unite and we have to learn from like Nat Turner’s mistake, and we have to kill the house niggers, we gotta kill `em, and that’s what we’re doing on this show, we trying to kill the house nigger, and we have to get in power. `Cause you have to understand as long as we gotta go begging to somebody we’re never going to get where we need to be. DFL [Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party], for example, representative Ellison . . . even Council Member Samuels, the black people running over in the eighth ward City council-why would you need this party to run in your own neighborhood when you the majority? You don’t need this party. See, black people, we have to understand and get in the right mind set, we have to get in power.

Samuels and Ostrow then asked the manager of MTN to suspend Flowers, effectively ending his program for the duration of the election cycle. Samuels and Ostrow argued that Hodges’ speech constituted “fighting words” and were intended to incite violence against Samuels. Samuels also filed complaint against Hodges, which was eventually dismissed.

Flowers filed suit in federal court, arguing that his suspension violated his right to free speech. Last week, Judge Montgomery in Minneapolis agreed (PDF). “This Court has found sufficient evidence that Samuels and Ostrow’s conduct violated Flowers’ First Amendment rights,” she wrote in her decision.

She also said that Hodges’ speech was crude but not intended to incite violence against Samuels.

“In light of Hodges’ repeated emphasis on voting, the average viewer could have construed Hodges’ controversial comments as a crude way of encouraging viewers to criticize and vote against certain City officials, such as Samuels, rather than literally kill them. This conclusion is corroborated by the absence of evidence that Hodges’ comments incited any viewers to commit violent acts against Samuels.”

Montgomery ruled on a motion for summary judgment to dismiss several defendants in the lawsuit. She declined to dismiss the lawsuit against Ostrow and Samuels, but removed the following from the case: the city of Minneapolis, city spokeswoman Gail Plewacki and five defendants identified as John Doe. The case will now move to trial. Flowers is seeking unspecified damages.