Drop the Pamphlet and Put Your Hands Over Your Head

Park Board pissing match leads to 911 call

Drinking, screwing, setting fires--there are some things you just shouldn't do in Minneapolis's city parks. To this list, the public may have to add a new taboo: passing out pamphlets without permission.

You may recall that back in December of 2003 the board caused a stir by hiring superintendent Jon Gurban. Not only hadn't Gurban participated in the interview or screening process, but his candidacy was unknown to the public and four of the nine commissioners on the board until just hours before the meeting to elect him.

Flash forward to June 8, when Jason Stone, a steadfast critic of Gurban's administration and a park board commissioner candidate, was handing out campaign literature before a public "open house" at Pearl Park in south Minneapolis. Gurban confronted Stone and told him that such activity was prohibited. Stone says he respectfully disagreed on First Amendment grounds and continued to pass out his flyers. Eventually, he moved some 100 feet from the entrance to the building.

By then, however, Gurban had called 911, triggering an "unknown trouble" alert. Within minutes, four officers in three squad cars from the city and park police forces rushed to the scene. They directed Stone to put away his literature and informed him that if he planned on attending the meeting at the park, he would need to remove his campaign button.

Gurban refused to comment on the incident at last week's park board meeting and was away at a funeral when City Pages attempted to contact him. But in an e-mail response to the Minneapolis Observer, he stated that "the type of activity Mr. Stone was engaged in requires a permit." He added that Stone already knew of the ban because "a broad overview of what was acceptable behavior during the 'political season'" had been provided at a board meeting that Stone had attended the previous week.

A verbal briefing was indeed delivered at the June 1 board meeting, suggesting that, since 1991, a permit has been required to hand out any campaign literature in any Minneapolis park. This shocked at least a few of the commissioners, for a couple of reasons: The ordinance's restriction of free speech makes it potentially unconstitutional, and almost no one has ever heard of it before, much less enforced it.

Citywide candidates for public office have always shaken hands and passed out literature at a variety of summer events connected with the parks, including Juneteenth and the upcoming Gay Pride Festival. At last Wednesday's park board meeting, the first since Gurban called the cops on Stone, commissioner Annie Young estimated that she campaigns "at 300 events, and not all, but a lot of them are in the parks. I've never heard of this policy. And I've never been stopped."

Commissioner Walt Dziedzic, a former Minneapolis police officer and city councilperson who generally is at odds with the anti-Gurban "reform" faction, was particularly contemptuous of the permit policy. And he cited a variety of ways he and others have violated it. More fundamentally, he eloquently stated that free speech was the reason his family emigrated from Poland and the reason he fought for this country in Korea. "Let me tell you, if we go to court on this issue, we're going to lose. We're amateurs, we don't know what we are talking about with [legal interpretations of] free speech," he said.

The commissioners passed Dziedzic's motion asking the board's counsel, Gurban, and the current board president to review the current policy and recommend further action. Meanwhile, some critics of Gurban on the online civic forum the Mpls. Issues List have been planning to commit acts of civic disobedience by helping Stone pass out literature in the parks without a permit. It's been done by thousands of other political volunteers over the past 14 years. But now that everyone--even the park board commissioners--are supposed to know that leafleting is against the rules, it will be illuminating to see how extensively, or selectively, the ban is enforced.

 
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