Minneapolis Park Board has pattern of problems with free speech


Every couple of years, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board makes headlines for violating citizens’ right to free speech. The latest example? The board’s president, Tom Nordyke, and superintendent, Jon Gurban, are banning the Minneapolis Charter Commission from holding public meetings at park buildings because the commission’s topic is a proposed charter amendment that would eliminate the Park Board.

Last week, according to the Star Tribune’s Steve Brandt, Nordyke told Charter Commission Chairman Jim Bernstein that the Park Board’s objection was to the content of the speech that would take place at the commission’s public meetings:

I cannot support holding the meetings in our buildings and wasting more taxpayer dollars and staff time on this initiative.

Bernstein ran unsuccessfully for park board in 2005. That same year, the suprintendent sicced police on another park board candidate who was attempting to distribute flyers for his reform campaign at a city park. Gurban told park board candidate Jason Stone to stop handing out campaign literature on park property and eventually called park police. The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota (ACLU-MN) intervened on Stone’s behalf.

Reporter Scott Russell quoted Gurban in the Southwest Journal:

Jason would say: “How are you this evening?” My response would be, “Jason, you can’t do this. And you know better. You were at that meeting last Wednesday night. Stop doing this.” … Am I happy three squad cars showed up? No, I am not. I know those squad cars have better things to do than to deal with an issue like this. If I was Jason Stone, I would be a little bit embarrassed about that. All Jason had to do was to stop handing out his literature.

Stone lost his 2005 race and is running for a place on the park board again this year.

Two years ago, Nordyke’s predecessor as board president, Jon Olson, wouldn’t let a citizen criticize Gurban during “open time” at board meetings. As the Star Tribune’s Pam Louwagie reported, the ACLU-MN again intervened after Olson cut off Minneapolis resident Arlene Fried, a co-founder of the citizen watchdog group Minneapolis Parkwatch, in the midst of a statement critical of Gurban:

FRIED: … Four: Failing to comply with the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act by not honoring all requests for public information. Five: Withholding of information from commissioners and the public, for example –

OLSON: Um, Ma’am …

FRIED: These are governmental issues.

OLSON: Okay, do you have documentation that we have failed to comply with the open Data Practices Act?

FRIED: I’m aware of it.

OLSON: You know, this is not — I’m going to cut you off right there. I’m going to cut you off.

FRIED: Excuse me. Excuse me. You can do that –

OLSON: Thank you very much and you have a good night. Thank you. And we’ll move on to our next speaker

FRIED: Freedom of speech. You’re denying me freedom of speech.

OLSON: I don’t think so. I’m not going to allow you to get up there and make accusations like that, that we violated the law.

May 2, 2007:

After the ACLU-MN intervened, Fried tried again at the May 16, 2007 meeting. In this second clip, Nordyke (who was not the board’s president at the time) persuades Olson to let Fried finish her statement.

Disclosure: I know Fried and have worked with her on several park-related issues, including posting these two clips from the official park board meeting videos to YouTube. I also wrote a January 2008 commentary for the Daily Mole expressing hope that newly elected President Nordyke would raise the park board’s standard of transparency, accountability and professionalism.