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Anti-porn activist challenges Minnesota harassment law at Eighth Circuit

The closure of the Twin Cities' alt-weekly newspaper, the activist’s attorneys argued, did not moot her claims that an advertiser’s restraining order against her was unconstitutional.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — A constitutional challenge to Minnesota’s harassment statute went before an Eighth Circuit panel Tuesday morning, courtesy of a Minneapolis anti-porn group. 

The Christian Action League of Minnesota, whose stated mission is “to honor human dignity by changing society’s acceptance of pornography,” engaged in a letter-writing and postcard campaign opposing the now-defunct Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, which was purchased by the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2015 and shuttered for good in 2020. The group began writing to local businesses in 2011 and encouraging them to boycott City Pages, saying that its content and acceptance of sex-industry ads made it “the porn industry’s best friend.” 

Prior to the paper’s demise, Christian Action League attorney Erick Kaardal wrote in a brief to the Eighth Circuit, the group and its founder Ann Redding sent communications to advertisers asking them to reconsider their support of the publication. One such advertiser, local family law attorney R. Leigh Frost, filed for and received a harassment restraining order against Redding in 2019. 

Frost told the Star Tribune that she’d written the league twice requesting that it stop contacting her, to no avail. The league filed suit against Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman challenging the harassment statute, only to have its case dismissed by U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery six months later. 

Montgomery, a Bill Clinton appointee, found that the anti-porn group did not have standing to bring its claims, since neither Freeman nor anybody else had threatened prosecution should its members continue communicating with Frost or other advertisers. Besides, she added, “the permanent closing of City Pages has rendered the claims moot.” 

Kaardal challenged that mootness finding at the St. Louis-based appeals court Tuesday morning before two George W. Bush-appointed judges, U.S. Circuit Judges Lavenski Smith and Raymond Gruender, and one Donald Trump appointee, U.S. Circuit Jonathan Kobes.

“My client has been harmed, and she continues to have harm,” he said of Redding. 

Kobes asked whether Freeman was even the proper party to sue.

“Don’t you have to have a reasonable fear of enforcement?” he asked. “The county doesn’t have anything to do with enforcement of an HRO, right?”

“Any time you’re connected to enforcement as a government official, you’re liable to be sued,” Kaardal responded. Redding, he said, had stopped all boycotting activity in response to the restraining order. 

Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Kelly Pierce said that Redding’s decision to stop her conduct was her problem. The restraining order, she noted, was no longer active.

“Appellants, without an active HRO against them, say that they have a credible fear that Freeman might prosecute,” she said. “But Freeman can’t prosecute without an active HRO.” 

She also noted that Redding had “argued vociferously that their conduct was not harassment under this statute.” 

Kaardal said that wasn’t relevant, and that the harassment restraining order nevertheless created a power differential between his clients, Freeman and Frost.

“My clients are basically church ladies,” he said. “They’re sending out these little postcards, trying to make a difference.” 

He added, “You get that ex parte restriction on your speech, or whatever, and then you go to that first hearing, and you’ve already lost.”

Neither Kaardal nor the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office responded to a request for comment. Frost, who now works for the Minneapolis-based firm DeWitt LLP, said she wasn’t familiar enough with the case to comment.

Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Law, Regional

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