Tevlin: A patriot at heart fights City Hall over free speech

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 6, 2012 - 8:57 PM

Robin Hensel is a 58-year-old mother, grandmother and foster mom whose family has a distinguished military history. Her father, two brothers and two uncles all served. One uncle, a pilot, even died in the military. One of the reasons they all served, she believes, was to protect her right to free speech.

That's why Hensel is puzzled and angered that exercising her free speech has gotten her into so much trouble in Little Falls. As her story spread across the Internet, Hensel even got death threats because she's had the audacity to give voice to such controversial topics as health care and peace.

Hensel has always been opinionated. She is well-read and listens to Minnesota Public Radio and likes to stay informed. But she noticed her viewpoints were not often presented in small towns in central Minnesota and decided to do something about it.

She put signs in her yard that said "Occupy Wall Street," "Back the 99 Percent" or "Boycott Monsanto."

Neighbors were not thrilled and complained to the city. It turns out there's a city code that a "political sign" can be displayed on a lawn for 90 days prior to and five days following an election. Residents can also get a permit to post one non-political sign for 30 days.

When city officials told Hensel she was violating the ordinance, she took the signs down immediately. Then she put them inside her house in the windows because at least Americans still have free speech inside their own homes.

But then Hensel did something that got a lot of people really mad. She noticed that a banner that has been hanging in a public square for 10 years also violated city ordinances. This time, however, the sign said: "We Support Our Troops."

Hensel agrees with the sign, except she thinks that the best way to support them is to bring them home from two wars. But she figures if her signs violated city ordinance and had to come down, then so does the troops banner. So she filed a complaint with the city.

Then all hell broke loose.

People wrote to the local newspaper and made comments that Hensel should be deported or sent to Iraq. Other residents began a petition to keep the banner to support the troops, though they didn't seem to care too much about whether Hensel's free speech was being violated.

In fact, it has gotten so bad that Hensel said she didn't want to be quoted or do any more interviews because she feared for her own kids and the vulnerable children she cares for. When I talked to her on Monday, she was beefing up security at her home.

Little Falls Police Chief Greg Shirmers confirmed that some comments and threats made on websites outside Little Falls were serious enough that he had an officer investigate. He thinks the most threatening comments have been taken down.

The city was scheduled to discuss the issue on Monday night, but earlier in the day, Hensel told me she would not be going to the meeting.

"If it wasn't for the kids, I wouldn't care," she said. "People are politicizing this because of the content of (my signs), but it's just a legal matter now."

Though Hensel said she didn't want to talk, she couldn't help herself. "This in no way is meant to belittle or criticize people in the military," she said. Rather, it's about the hypocrisy of the city telling her to take down signs when its own is not in compliance.

"My signs benefit the community just as much as [the troops] sign," she said.

Those signs have not exactly gone away. Hensel has now put them on her old "bomber van," which she has been known to park in front of City Hall.

"They can't tell me how to decorate my van," Hensel said defiantly. "Now I can get my message to a lot wider audience."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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