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Tevlin: Polar political opposites unite in Little Falls fight

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN
  • Star Tribune
  • February 29, 2012 - 7:52 PM

A few weeks ago I wrote about Robin Hensel, a Little Falls grandmother and foster mom who made some people angry because she put "Occupy Wall St." protest signs in her yard. The city told Hensel she was violating sign ordinances and had to take them down.

If she had to remove her signs, Hensel reasoned, then the city also had to remove a banner that said "We Support Our Troops" because it also violated a city ordinance against signs in the historic district.

That request drew death threats on the Internet, which she reported to local police.

I received a lot of predictable mail after the column ran, some supporting Hensel's free speech, others calling her unpatriotic.

One letter, however, was from a guy named Larry Frost, a retired Army intelligence officer, a lieutenant colonel who served in the Middle East and Latin America and a lawyer. His letter began this way:

"I not only oppose, I despise Hensel's viewpoints. I'm (nearly) one of the 1% -- and my wife and I got here through the values our parents taught us, their help, and our own hard work."

Frost went on to say that for nine years he carried a copy of the Constitution in his pack. "I figured I had promised to protect it, maybe I ought to know what it meant."

Then Frost concluded: "If Ms. Hensel wants to contact me, I'll consider doing her case pro bono. This is an important lesson for Minnesota -- and for my own kids, who are 12 and 15."

I connected Frost and Hensel and they had a long, honest chat. On Wednesday, the 1-percenter joined up with the 99-percenter to fight city hall. Frost intends to file a federal lawsuit contending that the city of Little Falls violated Hensel's right to free speech.

"What you've got here is a 57-year-old woman with disabilities, and she's taking care of a bunch of kids with problems," said Frost. "And you've got a bunch of bullies down at the town hall saying if you don't think like we do and talk like we do, we'll come down on you. That's wrong."

Frost believes the city's ordinance about political signs refers to campaign signs. Hensel's signs are about ideas, and he thinks the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly decided in favor of plaintiffs in cases like this.

"Political speech by private citizens is THE most protected speech," he said.

The city's unequal enforcement of sign laws bolsters the case, Frost said. "You don't get to selectively enforce the law."

Hensel was also denied a permit to do an Occupy-style sleepover, but discovered that other groups were allowed to camp out.

"I may have her put up a sign that says, 'This sign is illegal, and it's staying here,'" said Frost.

Little Falls is working on changing the ordinance, according to Jerry Lochner, manager of city services, and will have a public hearing on "what we want Little Falls to look like."

But Frost said "free speech is not fuzzy," and unless the city allows Hensel her signs, he will sue.

Frost and Hensel say she has had "credible" threats on the Internet, including one person who wanted to come after her with a baseball bat. They say local law enforcement has not taken those threats seriously, so Frost is considering going to the FBI. (The Little Falls' police chief assured me earlier that they were taking threats seriously.)

I don't know if I've met two more opposite people. Frost is a precise, disciplined intellectual and a staunch conservative. Hensel is a scattered lefty who passionately rambles on topics from labor rights to child care.

Both, in my opinion, are upstanding Americans who understand the vital importance of the First Amendment.

"She's what I would think of as a fairly typical leftist, collectivist," said Frost. "She feels things and makes a decision based on that. I decide things with my brain."

"He's likable enough," said Hensel. "I told him from the get-go it makes me uncomfortable he despises everything I stand for."

Yet, at a public meeting this week on the issue, Hensel followed Frost's advice. She believes he's the guy to help her express her opinions in the community.

The ordinance "greatly limits my ability to engage in civil discourse" because of my disabilities, Hensel said. "I want to continue to fight for the 99 percent, and kids who need help."

Frost adds, "It's astounding to me how few people understand what freedom means."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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