Free speech flip-flop

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June 27, 2005 // UPDATED 1:55 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Park Board staff reverses themsevles; no permit required to campaign in the parks

After taking a public relations beating and reviewing First Amendment case law, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board administration has reversed itself and will no longer require political candidates to get a permit to hand out literature in the parks.

The new policy also allows advocacy groups - on abortion, environmentalism and other non-commercial ventures - to distribute literature in parks without a permit, if they have 50 or fewer people, said Don Siggelkow, general manager for administration and finance.

The decision comes in the wake of a June 8 incident that raised free speech issues and drew the skeptical eye of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota.

Superintendent Jon Gurban summoned park police to deal with Park Board candidate Jason Stone, who was handing out campaign literature at Pearl Park, 414 E. Diamond Lake Rd., without a permit. Three squads responded to the 911 call - two park police officers driving solo and two Minneapolis officers, according to a June 15 Park Board meeting discussion.

The incident resulted in columns criticizing the Park Board in the Minneapolis Observer, Star Tribune and Southwest Journal.

Park Board staff initially defended the policy, saying if political speech was not regulated, park users would face a disruptive gauntlet of campaigners and advocacy groups.

At the Park Board meeting, Commissioner Walt Dziedzic pressed for a new look at the decade-old policy, calling the Park Board "amateurs" when it comes to First Amendment issues.

"If we go to court on some of these issues, we are going to lose," he said.

Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota had weighed in, saying the Park Board policy violated constitutionally protected speech. The ACLU has received more calls about the Stone incident than it did about overturning the state's sodomy laws, Samuelson said.

"We are surprised," he said. "I didn't know there was such a passion attached to the Park Board."

A Park Board policy review was expected July 6, but on June 23, leadership issued a memo eliminating the permit requirement for politically protected speech, such as handing out literature.

Does it change Gurban's thinking on his June 8 confrontation with Stone?

"I don't believe that he deserves an apology," Gurban said of Stone. "He was not in compliance with those regulations" in effect at the time.

Permits required

Since 1991, the Park Board staff had a policy that a person must have a park permit for: "The sale, distribution or circulation of any leaflets, handbills, notices, pamphlets, books, documents or paper of any kind, and the solicitation of signatures on a petition."

Candidates or others wishing to distribute literature around the Chain of Lakes or other larger parks had to buy a $35 permit, Siggelkow said. They also have to provide a $150 refundable damage deposit and have insurance indemnifying the park - the same as anyone getting a facility use permit.

Permits for distributing literature in smaller neighborhood parks, were free, he said.

People who wanted to hand out literature had to negotiate with Park Board staff regarding where in the park they would be, Siggelkow said. Further, candidates had to be behind a table, so people came to them.

Policies at other park systems vary.

Bob Bierscheid, director of St. Paul Parks, said people can hand out literature in city parks, within certain rules, no permit required.

Similar to Minneapolis' old policy, Three Rivers Park District (formerly Hennepin County Parks) requires candidates to get a free special-use permit to hand out literature.

Gurban said the new policy asks those handing out literature to use common sense.

"Please do not block access or egress to park buildings or block or impede traffic on parkways or paths," the policy says. "Do not litter or bother parents and guardians who may have children in wading pools or people playing on athletic fields. Most importantly, the peaceful enjoyment and solitude of park patrons must be respected."

The trigger

On June 8, the Park Board held a public open house at Pearl Park to discuss the new Edward Solomon Park near East 58th Street & Cedar Avenue South.

According to Stone, he stood 10 feet from the park's main entrance - not obstructing it - and handed out literature. Gurban saw him and angrily confronted him, Stone said.

Gurban noted that Stone had attended a June 1 Park Board meeting where staff discussed campaigning regulations - and Stone knew he needed a permit to hand out material.

He repeatedly asked Stone to stop handing out literature on park property, but Stone refused, Gurban said. He characterized his response not as angry but direct.

Stone said he moved 100 feet away to a sidewalk that led to the park facility, but still was on park property.

Gurban said he told Stone he gave him no choice but to ask for park police and have the candidate removed.

Said Gurban, "Am I happy three squad cars showed up? No, I am not. I know those squad cars have better things to do than to deal with an issue like this. If I was Jason Stone, I would be a little bit embarrassed about that. All Jason had to do was to stop handing out his literature."

Stone said he put his literature in the car, removed his nametag, and went to the meeting. He called the superintendent's actions "ludicrous." Stone has criticized the Park Board's leadership, he said, and he believes Gurban's actions were motivated by his dislike for Stone's politics.

Gurban said his actions had nothing to do with Stone's political views.

"I don't know what his message is," Gurban said. "I haven't read his campaign literature. I have never taken his campaign literature."

Stone said Gurban was well aware of his Park Board criticisms. In an e-mail exchange between the two provided by Stone, the candidate asked for certain budget figures, suggesting they were either "secret or unknown."

Gurban's response called Stone's suggestion "stupid," "irresponsible" and "inflammatory."

Stone said he was not embarrassed by his actions. He rejected Gurban's suggestion that it was a publicity stunt.

"I couldn't have anticipated the exaggerated response to a lone candidate quietly handing out literature in a park," he said. "Trying to cast blame on other parties for a bad policy and bad response is irresponsible."

Commissioner Mason, a Gurban critic, offered a resolution June 15 requiring Gurban to write a formal, public apology to Stone and have Gurban reimburse the Park Board for the wasted police time.

On a voice vote, Mason's was the only audible "aye."