The city of Anoka is set to make it a misdemeanor to picket in front of a single house without permission.
In a 4-1 vote May 17, the City Council approved the first reading of an ordinance banning targeted residential picketing, which includes marching, standing, patrolling or picketing in a way that focuses on a single dwelling without permission. Council Member Erik Skogquist dissented.
Targeted residential picketing ordinances have become a trend in the metro area.
Last year the city of Hugo approved a similar measure after protests outside the home of Bob Kroll, former president of the Minneapolis police union. Many cities in Anoka County and beyond have followed suit, including Anoka’s neighbors Andover, Champlin and Ramsey, as well as Blaine, Lino Lakes, Oak Grove, St. Francis and more. But such restrictions aren’t new. White Bear Township adopted a targeted residential picketing ordinance back in 1990 after about 20 people picketed outside the home of the executive director of Planned Parenthood.
Anoka city staff recommended a residential picketing ordinance as a proactive way of dealing with potential problems in light of unrest in other cities in the past year. City Attorney Scott Baumgartner told the City Council he views the ordinance as a “tool in the toolbox” and “a mechanism by which Chief Peterson and his staff can hopefully avoid or deescalate a situation before it gets to the point of becoming unruly.”
First Amendment concerns often come up when cities enact these types of ordinances, but the courts have said they’re constitutional.
“The uniqueness of this ordinance … is that it’s been tested, both by the Minnesota Court of Appeals and by the United States Supreme Court on the constitutionality of First Amendment rights,” Baumgartner said. “And in both situations, both courts had agreed that due to the limited nature and the scope of the ordinance … it did not violate the First Amendment rights.”
According to Baumgartner, both courts focused on the rights of people in their homes and the fact that people at home have no retreat.
“If you can’t retreat to your home and find solitude and safety in your own home, then where are you to go?” Baumgartner said.
Baumgartner also pointed out the ordinance “has nothing to do with the content of the message being conveyed.”
“It has everything to do with the location of the content that’s being conveyed,” he said.
To enforce such an ordinance, Baumgartner recommends law enforcement take a series of steps before making arrests. Such steps include informing people they are in violation of the ordinance and asking them to leave, providing a copy of the ordinance, and suggesting a location on public property where the protest can continue legally.
Police Chief Eric Peterson said he has reviewed other agencies’ policies and will embrace the best practices mentioned by Baumgartner.
“Our goal would be to deescalate the crowd and have them disperse,” Peterson said. “Arrests are certainly on the table, but only for those individuals who have been properly warned, properly informed and refuse to comply.”
Skogquist said he understands the purpose of the ordinance but thinks the police have other tools to keep peace in neighborhoods, such as prohibitions against trespassing, vandalism and the like. He pointed out the ordinance technically would make it a misdemeanor for a single person to quietly stand in front of Skogquist’s house holding a sign without Skogquist’s permission, and he thought that was “a bridge too far.”
“If there’s specifics that we want to get at, I think there’s better ways to do that than kind of this carte blanche, you know, ‘you can’t be in a residential neighborhood and have an opinion the person in front of you doesn’t like,’ and that’s how I see this,” Skogquist said.
Council Member Jeff Weaver disagreed, saying it’s important to have the “tool in the toolbox.”
“If we don’t have it and something happens, we’re going to regret it,” Weaver said. “Because it’s not about, so much, the person being targeted. Sometimes it’s the sanctity of the neighborhood.”
Mayor Phil Rice said he would support the ordinance because in addition to free speech, people also have the right to peaceful enjoyment of their home.
“We have rights that conflict, and we have to address that conflict,” Rice said. “And so I think this ordinance does. It may not be perfect, but many ordinances aren’t. And so we have to try to do what we can in order to preserve peace and safety.”
The targeted residential picketing ordinance will need final approval at a second reading before it goes into effect.