Ribnik Fur protesters Isaac Peter and Michael Lawson protected by First Amendment

As far as animal rights protests go, this one was pretty mild. No ink thrown on ladies wearing fur coats. No naked women chained to the front doors.

And Isaac Peter and Michael Christopher Lawson figured they were on pretty firm First Amendment grounds a year ago in March, when they showed up outside Ribnik Fur in downtown Minneapolis for one of their numerous demonstrations.

The two Plymouth men waved their signs. They chanted some slogans. They stared into the store's windows and shouted some nasty stuff.

But what got William Ribnik agitated, and prompted him to call the cops, was when Peter and Lawson started yelling about knowing where Ribnik lived, about knowing his car's license plate number, about knowing where the man's elderly mother lived. The two men never actually threatened violence, but a reasonable person could understand why he wanted Peter and Lawson gone.

MPD officers arrived, and initially they weren't going to arrest the pair. But when they got a complaint from another nearby store owner, they took the protesters into custody. Thus began Peter and Lawson's journey through District Court, in which they were found guilty of disorderly conduct, and then denied an appeal in First Amendment grounds.

Today, appeals court Judge Roger M. Klaphakereversed the lower court's ruling.

Even the conduct by appellants that was directed at individuals, consisting of shrieking and yelling through a closed window and stating that they knew where Ribnick and his mother lived and they knew his license plate number, did not constitute fighting words. No reasonable jury could have found that any of appellants' statements constituted fighting words as that phrase has been defined.

As obnoxious as Peter and Lawson were being -- dragging Ribnik's mother into the issue -- their conduct was protected by the First Amendment because their speech didn't rise to the level of fighting words. And those fighting words need to be present in order to be convicted of disorderly conduct under the law.

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