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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.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

Chalking on sidewalk protected as free speech

  • Article by: Randy Furst
  • Star Tribune
  • October 10, 2013 - 10:22 AM

 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota said Tuesday that it had chalked up another victory — literally — for the First Amendment in the case of an antiwar activist.

Under a settlement agreement, the city of Minneapolis, the Federal Protective Service and a private security firm agreed to pay $5,000 to settle a suit brought by the ACLU on behalf of an activist who wrote an antiwar slogan in chalk on a public sidewalk in 2011. All parties agreed in the settlement that using erasable chalk on public sidewalks is a protected First Amendment right in Minneapolis.

The activist, Melissa Hill, 34, who has been involved in other free-speech legal battles, had printed the slogan “Don’t Enlist, Resist” outside the old Federal Building at 212 3rd Av. S., which housed the Military Entrance Processing Station.

Hill, a records clerk for a law firm, had printed the slogan in chalk on June 8, 2011, and returned the next day to find that the slogan had been erased except for the word “Enlist.”

Hill began reprinting the sign and was ordered to stop by security guards. She was handcuffed, her backpack was taken and she was detained for about an hour, said Nadege Souvenir, an attorney who handled the case for no fee for the ACLU.

Minneapolis police were called, and Hill was issued a trespass notice by a security guard, barring her from the property for a year.

“To me it was a pretty big victory,” Hill said of the settlement. “Basically, it kind of shows that we can chalk in Minneapolis on sidewalks, and hopefully we are not going to be harassed outside the federal buildings anymore.”

However, City Attorney Susan Segal said Tuesday that it was no big deal. “Melissa Hill was never criminally charged,” she said, and the city is a defender of First Amendment rights. Segal said police do not arrest people for chalking on the sidewalk, even though it has happened repeatedly, especially in the past couple of years outside City Hall.

“I know when my children were small they chalked on city sidewalks outside our house,” Segal said.

“We agreed to pay $999 so as not to have to deal with this anymore,” she said. The federal government chipped in $1,000 and DECO, the security guard service, paid $3,000, all of which will go to the ACLU.

Jaqueline Yost, a spokeswoman for the Federal Protective Service in Washington, said she was unaware of the settlement and referred questions to the U.S. attorney’s office in Minneapolis, which is declining to speak to the media because of the federal government shutdown. In 2012, Hill won a $15,000 settlement from Hennepin County after she was issued a trespass notice by the Sheriff’s Office for writing slogans in chalk on the Hennepin County Government Center plaza during the Occupy protests in the fall of 2011.

Cam Gordon, the Second Ward council member, said he was delighted with Hill’s latest settlement. “A lot of us felt this [chalking] was absolutely harmless,” he said. “It should be OK to express free speech and even play hopscotch.”

 

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

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