Free speech–by permit only?


“Guantánamo, Here We Come!!!” The sign wielded by an audience member succinctly captured the fears and opposition of activists at Wednesday’s meeting of the Public Safety and Regulatory Services committee of the Minneapolis City Council. The committee approved and recommended to the full Council, by a 3-2 vote, an ordinance stating protesters “must” present city officials with a plan for their protest at least 15 days in advance, and receive approval before holding any protests or rallies. (For full text of proposed ordinance, click on attachment below.)

Council members Paul Ostrow (DFL – Ward 1), Don Samuels (DFL – Ward 5), and Diane Hofstede (DFL – Ward 3), supporters of the resolution, faced a hostile and cynical audience that filled the council chambers. Amendments to the resolution, authored by council members Ralph Remington (DFL – Ward 10) and Ostrow, that clarified the council’s intent as trying to ensure a protest had “priority” over a particular public space, did nothing to mollify activists’ resistance.

Indeed, as the afternoon wore on, exchanges between supporters and opponents on the committee grew bitter and obstinate, culminating in lengthy procedural maneuvers between council member Ostrow and council members Cam Gordon (Green Party – Ward 2) and Gary Schiff (DFL – Ward 9), staunch opponents of the resolution.

The nine-page ordinance now coming before the full Minneapolis City Council states that protesters are “encouraged to register the assembly with City staff assigned to coordinate such rallies,” but that protesters “planning on holding a public assembly of greater than 50 persons in a location that will prevent other pedestrians from using the sidewalks and crosswalks must provide notice of the assembly to City staff and obtain plan approval.”

“Spontaneous” protests will not require permits, and “failure to provide notice [to City officials] shall not be an offense” under city ordinances, nor will there be a fee to apply for a permit.

The resolution gives police the power to disperse a protest if it has not received approval. The plan generally tries to assure a plan is not denied for anything other than “reasonable” justifications. The application’s contents are specified in the nine-page resolution, which also says that applications will be made to the Director of Regulatory Services, and not to police or any other government office.

From early on, it was clear how the committee would vote – Ostrow, Hofstede, and Samuels in favor; Schiff and Gordon against. The resolution’s supporters, in particular, directed their points to the largely hostile and suspicious audience, in an effort not to alienate activists who were planning protests for September’s Republican National Convention. Council member Ostrow pleaded that the resolution was “the most progressive in the nation,” the only such set of municipal regulations in the country that did not impose fees as part of the application process and explicitly ruled out charging violators with any offense.

Council member Remington, who worked with council member Ostrow in crafting the amendments, tried to use his credentials as a veteran protester to win listeners over with impassioned reasoning that it was necessary to keep (implicitly conservative) counter-protesters at the Republican National Convention from “bogarting the space” and forcing their opponents out of their planned location. (While part of the Free Speech Working Group, council member Remington was not a member of the committee voting on the resolution.)

Activists testifying before the committee, as well as council members Schiff and Gordon, kept returning to the section of the resolution declaring all protesting groups “must” file a plan with the city no later than 15 days in advance. Council member Schiff repeatedly pointed out that the restrictions go against 150 years of Minnesota legal tradition of unfettered right to protest, as enshrined in the First Amendment.

Michelle Gross, of Communities United Against Police Brutality, described the resolution in an email as based on irrational fear. Furthermore, she argued that it gave police sweeping powers to restrict the right to challenge the government. “The ordinance itself is ripe for selective enforcement,” she said, “because it is vague and gives police entirely too much power. Further, the ordinance creates a new and daunting bureaucratic process one must navigate just to engage in a constitutionally protected right.”

Describing the resolution as giving any group a “license to close sidewalks” to pedestrians by reserving “priority” for the space, council member Gordon suggested the resolution would lead to at least confusion, and at worst excessive litigation, from passersby who tried to use a sidewalk reserved by a group of protesters, or even a group setting up chairs to watch a parade.

Both council member Gordon and Gross decried what Gross described as “the hysterical citation of [anti-World Trade Organization protests in] Seattle” used as “a scare tactic” to justify unconstitutional regulations that also made it much more difficult to publicly challenge government statements.

Minneapolis Police and City Council representatives could not be reached for comment for this article.

As debate degenerated into acrimony and exhaustion around six pm, Counsel Member Samuels, as acting committee chair, called a vote and brought the long hearing to a close.

In his closing statement, council member Samuels argued that the “success” of the Republican National Convention should be of paramount importance to the [rules and regulations] committee because, he said, it would be critical to attracting events of similar scope in the future. Echoing council members Remington and Ostrow, he suggested the city’s economic future and national status was strongly tied to such events of national importance.