MCLU sues over Freeborn rule

By Brian Bakst

Associated Press

ST. PAUL -- Four Freeborn County residents aren't sitting quietly while the county board uses a policy to stop one of their neighbors from speaking at meetings.

They're suing over it. And they've enlisted the help of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit Friday in federal court in Minneapolis.

The foursome, co-founders of the watchdog group "Eye on Freeborn County," contends that the board is impinging on free speech rights with a policy that limits comments to five minutes, prevents people from talking on a single issue more than twice in a year and dictates the tone.


The policy -- known as Rule 19 -- prohibits "personal, impertinent, offensive, slanderous, quarrelsome, challenging, profane, abusive or boisterous remarks tending reasonably to alarm, arouse anger or cause resentment in others."

Violators can be banned from speaking at future meetings, unless a majority of the board votes to let them talk. At least half a dozen times this year, the board has used it to silence outspoken Albert Lea resident Roger Bok, who isn't a party to the lawsuit.

"Roger never got violent, he never got loud, he never swore," said Mike Simmons, one of the plaintiffs. "He just criticized, and they don't like it."

"They're his elected representatives. They should have to sit there and listen to him for five minutes."

Simmons, an Albert Lea resident for nine years, worries he'll be next. He's already addressed the board twice this year on a controversial new courthouse and twice on behalf of allowing Bok to talk.

"My fear is that if I bring (either) up again, I'd be banned under the rule," he said.

County Board Chairman Mark Behrends, who has said previously that he doesn't believe the board has violated anyone's free speech rights, declined to comment on the lawsuit. He referred questions to the county administrator, who didn't return two phone calls.

Chuck Samuelson, MCLU executive director, said the rule is intimidating.


"What it does is scare away people from going to these public forums," he said.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction to stop the county board from enforcing Rule 19.

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