Woodbury picket ban echoes state law

Image courtesy of Du Tran on Flickr

Last week, the Woodbury City Council banned targeted residential picketing -- standing in front of one house, chanting, and waving signs to make a point. The move provoked an outcry over the squelching of First Amendment rights. But as it turns out, the state banned targeted residential picketing 16 years ago.

The Woodbury action came after protests at the home of 3M execs last year. The protestors were objecting to 3M's connection to Huntingdon Life Science, an animal testing laboratory in the United Kingdom. The protesters gathered five times in 2008 at the Woodbury homes of Robert MacDonald and Jean Lobey. They stayed on public property.

It seems like the protesters were exercising their First Amendment rights guarding free speech and peaceful assembly. But the Woodbury City Council decided last week that the Fourth Amendment rights of the 3M executives, expectation of privacy, overruled the First Amendment rights of the protesters. In a 4-1 decision, the city council passed an ordinance banning targeted residential picketing in Woodbury.

At least a dozen people showed up at Woodbury last week to protest the ordinance. Amy Scoggins, the lone city councilmember who voted against the new ordinance, said it bothered her that no one showed up in support of the ordinance.

What's surprising is that the state of Minnesota made targeted residential picketing illegal 16 years ago, when it included it in state statute defining harassment. As the state law is written, the burden is on the person being picketed to file a restraining order against the picketers. Once a restraining order has been filed, police can nab people for violating the restraining order.

So Woodbury's decision didn't do anything that state law hadn't done already. It simply switched the burden for enforcing the statutes from the person being targeted to police. Now, picketers who demonstrate in front of a specific home could be slapped with a misdemeanor for violating the city's no-residential-picketing ordinance. If police ask them to leave and they don't, they'll now be guilty of a crime.

"The bottom line is it does give our officers a tool that could be used," says Lee Vague, Woodbury police chief.

Seem like a crazy crackdown of constitutional rights? Maybe not, according to legal precedent. A Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld a similar White Bear ordinance, and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a targeted picketing ban related to abortion protesters. Maplewood and Shoreview also have banned targeted residential picketing.

But that didn't soothe the outraged protesters, who argued with Vague outside of the council's chambers after the decision. One told him that he was siding with rich people, not "the people."