What do you get when you mix business, politics, free speech and a contentious social issue on Election Day, then throw in a little overreach by your friendly, local sheriff's department?
About what you'd expect.
Look no further than Chaska, last Tuesday. Mark Themig was driving his large red pickup truck adorned with a decal that said, "Vote No, don't limit the freedom to marry," when he passed Halla Nursery and saw their sign.
It said: "Vote Yes For Marriage."
"I thought, 'C'mon, you're not really doing that are you?'" said Themig, who is gay and has a partner of 18 years. He pulled into the open gates of the nursery to take a picture of the sign.
Turns out the store was closed. A woman, the sister of owner Mark Halla, was on the premises and yelled at Themig that he wasn't allowed to take a photo.
"Not only can I take a picture, I'm going to share it with my friends on Facebook," so they can refuse to shop at Halla, Themig replied.
He took a picture, then left the lot and took more pictures from a public sidewalk. The debate over the sign continued, though its nature and decibel level are up for interpretation.
"I can't say I didn't engage her," said Themig. "It was a pretty emotional discussion about the sign. She was definitely looking out for the interests of the business."
Themig says he didn't threaten the woman and didn't think he harassed her. He said he gave her his name and phone number -- probably not something a guy who just threatened a woman would do -- then went home and posted a Facebook message suggesting to his friends they had other options for where to shop.
About 45 minutes later, a deputy from the Carver County Sheriff's Office arrived at Themig's home. Yep, it gets quiet out in Carver County.
Themig said the deputy accused him of harassing a business owner and defaming them on the Internet. There was no indication the deputy had even seen his post, Themig said.
"He was very argumentative," said Themig, who works for county government but was off that day. "He said he was filing a report to the city attorney of Chanhassen for possible charges of harassment and defamation of a company."
Let's pause here for a gut check, Deputy Dawg.
While Minnesota does have a "crime" of defamation on the books, it is "exceedingly rare" to be used because it would not be constitutionally upheld, said Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association. He can recall one case in maybe 40 years.
Anfinson said Themig was in his rights to take photos on the property "until he was told to stop" and completely free to take pictures from a public sidewalk thereafter -- and he's free to use any photos that he took on Facebook.
Though only two people know how rigorous the conversation was, "it's not impossible he said something that resembles harassment," given the intense emotions on Election Day, said Anfinson. But it would be very hard to prove, and thus a further waste of resources, unless, of course, there is something in the so-far hard-to-obtain deputy's report.
Themig has asked for the report, but Carver County has refused to give it to him. A deputy declined to give it to me Monday, saying the people qualified to give out public information were on a holiday.
"[Mark Halla] has every right to put that sign up," said Themig. But he also has to face the possible consequences of expressing that opinion, including when someone posts it on Facebook, he added.
Actually, Halla seems willing to do just that.
"We are founded on faith and being a Christian," said Halla. "My faith should inform every aspect of my life. Rather than let my business inform my faith, my faith informs my business."
And let the chips fall where they may, he said.
Halla called Themig after the incident.
"I said, 'Good for you for sticking up for your opinion,'" Halla said. "But my sister felt she had been verbally assaulted by him. She was intimidated. I prefer to stand hand-in-hand and share my opinions."
Now that the dust has settled, Halla was less sure about whether Themig should be prosecuted.
"I think it rises to the occasion of harassment," Halla said. "But in my opinion, I wouldn't press charges.
"I try to respond in love."
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