The Minnesota Supreme Court has tossed out a disorderly conduct law aimed at people who disrupt public meetings.
The Court ruled in the case of Robin Hensel, of Little Falls, who was cited for disorderly conduct after she moved her chairs closer to city councilors at a meeting, days after the Council rescheduled a meeting when Hensel displayed signs that depicted dead and deformed children, blocking the view of others in the audience.
She was convicted after a judge refused to allow her to enter a defense under the First Amendment.
“The Court has made clear that “the First Amendment does not guarantee the right to communicate one’s views at all times and places or in any manner that may be desired,” Court of Appeals Judge Michelle Ann Larkin ruled last year upholding the conviction.
Today, the Minnesota Supreme Court overruled the Court of Appeals, ruling the statute about disturbing public meetings is overly broad (See full opinion).
Here’s how the law reads:
Whoever does any of the following in a public or private place, including on a school bus, knowing, or having reasonable grounds to know that it will, or will tend to, alarm, anger or disturb others or provoke an assault or breach of the peace, is guilty of disorderly conduct, which is a misdemeanor:
. . .
(2) disturbs an assembly or meeting, not unlawful in its character . .
“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,” Justice David Stras wrote for the majority in today’s opinion.
This statute presents us with a “criminal prohibition of alarming breadth.” Stevens, 559 U.S. at 474. It criminalizes a public speech that “criticize[s] various political and racial groups . . . as inimical to the nation’s welfare.” It prohibits an individual from wearing a jacket containing an offensive inscription to a meeting. And certainly, it would forbid someone from burning the American flag on a public street.
In addition to being disruptive of gatherings of all kinds, all of these actions share a common quality: they are protected under the First Amendment. Due to the countless ways in which [the law] can prohibit and chill protected expression, we conclude that the statute facially violates the First Amendment’s overbreadth doctrine.