In 2016, attorney Larry Frost addressed the Bloomington City Council.
The neighborhood, he said, was fed up with the nearby Dar Al Farooq Islamic Center. There were too many people and too many cars coming and going.
“I don’t know if this is true of Somalis,” said Frost, who had served in Egypt as an army recruit. “I’m familiar with Arabs, but in Egypt the drivers ignore the traffic law all the time. Kind of a cultural thing… but the neighbors are saying they’re driving through there a lot faster than 25 miles per hour.”
City officials didn’t really know what to do with that. They also weren’t exactly sure what Frost was presenting. Petitions need signatures, and Frost’s had none. They dismissed it on “procedural grounds.”
The mayor and city manager at the time both told City Pages they were aware of complaints, but said they’d come from just a few neighbors. That includes Bloomington grandmother Sally Ness, one of the people behind Frost’s petition, according to court documents.
Ness has been the neighborhood’s point person for complaints about the mosque, the adjoining charter school (Success Academy), and the city-owned Smith Park, which the school uses during recess. According to a complaint filed in Minnesota District Court earlier this month—and Ness’ own frequent testimony—the mosque had “grossly underrepresented” the level of activity it would bring to the site when it opened in 2011.
Court documents say neighbors were concerned about traffic, parking overflow, noise from “basketball sessions late into the night,” “overflowing trash,” and “excessive use” of public facilities, including Smith Park.
“The use of Smith Park by DAF and Success Academy has severely limited, if not prohibited outright, the public’s use of this park,” the complaint says.
Why can’t the public use the park at the same time as kids from the mosque and the charter school? Ness’ complaint doesn't say.
In an attempt to prove her point, Ness has taken it upon herself to document activity at site. That includes maintaining a public blog and Facebook page all about the “DAF/Success Academy controversy,” complete with photos and video of street traffic, kids being dropped off at school, and people otherwise going about their business.
Her surveillance has not gone unnoticed.
“[Students are] not as excited to be outside as they used to be,” Success Academy teacher Mariah Mincke said to City Pages in a previous interview. Various run-ins with strangers (including Ness) watching students from across the street have left kids “wary,” and teachers worry it could impact their performance in class.
According to the complaint, Bloomington police have warned Ness her filming makes people uncomfortable, and could lead to charges of harassment. The same goes for the city’s nascent “No Filming” rule, which pointedly prohibits people from filming or photographing random kids in city parks without parents’ permission.
Be that as it may, Ness and her attorney, William Mohrman of Mohrman, Kaardal, and Erickson, argue she was fully within her constitutional rights to document what’s going on and “challenge” the activity at the mosque, school, and park.
Ness believes her quest has jeopardized her safety: In one incident cited in court documents, city officials asked her to state her address for the record before she offered public comments. Ness refused.
“She had reason to fear retaliation from patrons at DAF/Success Academy,” the complaint says. “At one point, DAF/Success Academy patrons surrounded her car, trapping her, while they threatened and jeered at her. Plaintiff Ness no longer speaks at City Council meetings.”
Ness is suing the city, the Hennepin County Attorney, and police officers who responded to harassment complaints about her filming children, saying they’d infringed upon her right to free speech. She wants the state’s current harassment statute and the city’s new rules about filming strangers’ children ruled unconstitutional, and is also seeking some nominal damages. The city of Bloomington sent a statement saying the lawsuit has been received, but declined to comment on the substance of the case.
The American Freedom Law Center, which claims that “the battle for America’s soul is being waged in the courtrooms across America” against “secular progressives and Sharia-advocating Muslim Brotherhood interests,” is co-counseling the case. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls that organization’s co-founder David Yerushalmi an “anti-Muslim activist” and “a leading proponent of the idea that the United States is threatened by the imposition of Muslim religious law, known as Shariah.”
Mohrman, Ness’ lawyer, insists her case has “nothing to do with the fact that the mosque is affiliated with the Muslim religion.”
Yerushalmi doesn't see it that way. In a statement, he says Ness’ predicament is just “another example of encroachment on our liberties when Islam is involved.”