Protester's suit says trespass laws stifle free speech

  • Article by: DAN BROWNING , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 26, 2012 - 8:59 PM

Activist was cited after writing in chalk on U.S. courthouse sidewalk.

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Melissa Hill, left, and Meredith Abey protested outside Target Field in July 2010, trying to rally support against bringing the Democratic National Convention to Minneapolis.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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A Minneapolis war protester has brought out some big legal guns to defend her right to write in washable chalk on public property.

Melissa Hill was banned for a year from the federal building in Minneapolis after she used chalk last June to write an antiwar statement on a sidewalk in front of the U.S. District courthouse. In a lawsuit made public Monday, attorneys with the 100-year-old law firm Dorsey & Whitney allege that courthouse security personnel and a Minneapolis police officer violated Hill's constitutional rights by detaining her, searching her backpack without permission and issuing her a no-trespassing notice.

Hill, 33, was not charged with a crime. But violation of the no-trespassing notice carries maximum penalties of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. The citation dissuaded her from exercising her free speech rights near the Federal Building, the suit says.

Her suit, which is being sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, says agents reviewed a videotape that allegedly shows her writing "Don't Enlist, Resist," on the sidewalk June 8. When she returned the next day, she noticed that only the word "Enlist" remained. As she tried to restore the message, guards ordered her to stop, confiscated her backpack and led her inside in handcuffs, the suit says. Minneapolis police officer Amy Vreeland was called, viewed the videotape, and gave Hill a no-trespass notice.

"This is a classic example of overreach of law enforcement. Ms. Hill was simply exercising her freedom of speech when she was subject to harassment and punishment by the law enforcement agencies involved in this matter," ACLU Executive Director Charles Samuelson said in a statement.

The suit names as defendants Vreeland, Gov. Mark Dayton, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, Hennepin County Managing Attorney Gail Baez, the Minneapolis Police Department, the Federal Protective Service and unidentified federal agents.

The suit alleges that Vreeland and federal agents conducted an illegal search and seizure in violation of Hill's Fourth Amendment rights.

It alleges that Dayton, Swanson, Baez and the city violated Hill's 14th Amendment rights to due process. And it alleges that the trespass notice prevents Hill from exercising her First Amendment right to free speech.

Third time around

The suit marks the third trip to federal court in recent years over civil rights issues for Hill, who is a clerk at a law firm.

During the Republican National Convention in 2008, she was swept up with dozens of other protesters in Minneapolis after a concert by Rage Against the Machine.

Her attorney at the time, Jordan Kushner, alleged a violation of her free speech rights and claimed she was forced to spend money defending herself on trumped-up charges that ultimately were dismissed. She settled that case in 2010.

Hill was issued a trespass notice last October for writing slogans in chalk on the Hennepin County Government Center plaza during the Occupy MN protest.

Two days later, as a legal observer for the National Lawyers Guild, she was arrested while she filmed the protest.

Kushner sued Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek and others alleging that the county had violated Hill's due process and First Amendment rights. The county settled in January, agreeing to pay Hill $15,000. It also changed its appeals policy to provide more due process protections for people barred from county property.

Hill declined to comment on Monday. But she said after settling with the county that she felt vindicated.

"I was arrested on a public sidewalk. This sends a strong message that they can't be misusing their trespass policy to suppress free speech."

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493

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