Court's ruling means that free speech can blare in Burnsville

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 11, 2010 - 7:44 PM

It turns out there is free speech after all, even in Burnsville.

And you can honk for that, as long as you don't endanger the public safety.

A few weeks ago I wrote about an ad hoc peace group that has been meeting for several years to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Occasionally, drivers who agree with them have honked in support.

Burnsville police say that about two years ago they got some complaints from people who live nearby. Peace was noisy, they said. Peace was irritating.

So the cops began to monitor the group, taking photographs and videos. They cited a woman under existing honking ordinances, but when the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota took up the case as a free-speech issue, the city made a deal: Go ahead and honk and we won't issue a citation unless you are jeopardizing the public safety.

So along comes Bob Palmer: peacenik, iconoclast, retiree, ebullient horn honker. Palmer laid on the horn somewhere in the neighborhood of 52 times one day at rush hour. Officials were not amused, and ticketed him.

The case went to Judge Rex Stacey in Dakota County District Court on April 28. The city argued that Palmer made the busy intersection of Nicollet Avenue and Burnsville Parkway more hazardous.

Howard Bass, an attorney for Palmer from the ACLU of Minnesota, argued that the city broke its agreement with the group. He also argued that the ticketing was discriminatory because the city had never cited anyone for honking before, there was no probable cause and honking was protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Judge Stacey, in a brief memo, noted that the city did not offer a shred of evidence that the public safety was in danger, thus the city violated its own consent decree not to ticket honkers. End of argument. He didn't have to consider any of the other issues, so he didn't.

Coleen Rowley, a former FBI agent who has taught civil liberties law to officers and agents, is one of the peace potesters.

"This is really, really good," said Rowley. "We are all excited. There are other cases like this around the country, so I hope this will have a wider purpose."

Bass said that the complaints came largely from one police officer, now retired.

That former officer wrote to me a couple of weeks ago and said several of his neighbors had complained, and that he then brought those complaints to the city.

But Bass said the officer was also the one to first issue tickets to honkers. "He had a dog in the fight," said Bass.

"We're happy the First Amendment is validated," said Bass. "Judge Stacey concluded that 52 honks didn't endanger public safety. You can't scream 'Fire!' in a crowded theater, but you can honk until your heart's content to express political opinion. We hope [Burnsville police] follow the judge's order and stop harassing people who are exercising their rights."

Rowley has a more long-term dream:

"We hope the wars will be over soon and we won't have to stand on the corner much longer."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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