Minnesota High Court Nixes Disorderly-Conduct Law

(CN) – A Minnesota woman who displayed photos of dead babies during a city council meeting is not guilty of disorderly conduct, the state’s highest court ruled, striking down a disorderly-conduct statute barring disturbances at public meetings.

Robin Lyne Hensel attended a meeting of the Little Falls City Council and sat in the front row. She displayed 4-by-4-foot photos of dead and deformed babies.

Hansel also wore a sign on her head, blocking the view of residents sitting behind her. As a result of her actions, council members adjourned and rescheduled the meeting, according to a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling issued Wednesday.

They tried to meet again four days later, but Hensel decided to sit between the council and the rest of the audience. She challenged council members to show why she could not sit there.

A police officer escorted Hensel from the room, and she was charged with disorderly conduct under a state law prohibiting disturbances at assemblies or meetings.

She moved to dismiss the charge, arguing that the statute was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.

The district court acknowledged that the statute was overbroad but refused to dismiss the case, finding that the law called for proof that “the disturbance in this case was caused by defendant’s conduct itself and not the content of the activity’s expression.”

The court found Hensel guilty, and the state appeals court upheld her conviction.

But Hensel found a more sympathetic ear with the Minnesota Supreme Court. It agreed Wednesday that the disorderly-conduct statute was overbroad and reversed her conviction in a 4-2 decision.

“An individual could violate the statue 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 R. Stras wrote for the court’s majority.

The judge added, “Due to the countless ways in which [the statute] can prohibit and chill protected expression, we conclude that the statute facially violates the First Amendment’s overbreadth doctrine.”

Stras stated that the next step was to determine whether the law should be narrowed or invalidated.

Narrowing the statue to include only fighting words or the “conduct-content” construction mentioned by the district court are both “flawed,” Stras said.

Justice G. Barry Anderson dissented from the majority, despite agreeing that the statute is overbroad.

“The court too hastily invalidates the statute after concluding that it reaches some constitutionally protected speech,” he wrote.

Anderson stated that the disorderly-conduct law could be construed narrowly by focusing on the word “conduct,” not speech.

“The statute, viewed as a whole, is readily susceptible to a narrowing construction in which it applies when an individual, through conduct, not speech, disturbs an assembly or meeting, not unlawful in its character, knowing that the conduct of the individual will, or will tend to, alarm, anger or disturb others or provoke an assault or breach of the peace,” he wrote.

Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea joined Anderson in his dissent.

Stras was joined in the majority by Justices Natalie Hudson, Margaret Chutich and Anne McKeig.

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