By Terry Lehrke, News Editor
A federal judge dismissed most of Robin Hensel’s complaints against the city of Little Falls Wednesday, Jan. 8.
Attorney Larry Frost filed the lawsuit against the city on Hensel’s behalf in May 2012.
The lawsuit alleged the city violated Hensel’s constitutional right to free speech, when she was asked to remove signs in her yard that violated city code in fall 2011.
The city maintained its sign ordinance was complaint-driven and that Hensel was asked to remove the signs only after a complaint was received about the signs in her yard.
Hensel found other signs in the city that violated the code, including a “We Support Our Troops” banner hanging on a building on Bank Square in Little Falls.
The lawsuit alleged that the city, which has updated its sign ordinance in the meantime, has singled Hensel out because it disagrees with the content of the signs and her political views.
It also alleged that the city’s sign ordinance is unconstitutional and gives preference to commercial signs, since the number of signs and the footage of signs allowed is greater in a commercially-zoned area than in residential areas.
In addition, the suit alleged that the city’s bench ordinance, which allows advertising on benches located throughout the city, was also unconstitutional. That bench ordinance has since been updated along with the sign ordinance.
Judge Richard Kyle held the city’s new sign ordinance is constitutional and dismissed that portion of the suit, which the city’s attorney Paul Reuvers called “a significant victory for the city.”
However, as to her complaint against the city regarding the “old” bench ordinance (which no longer exists and was replaced with a new bench ordinance), the judge granted her the right to a jury trial to determine any damages with respect to that claim.
The court determined that the new sign ordinance is a valid time, place and manner restriction and that it serves the city’s interests without unreasonably limiting alternative forms of communication and granted the city’s motion to dismiss this count in the complaint.
In addition, the court rejected Hensel’s claim the sign ordinance was selectively enforced against her.
In Kyle’s decision, he notes, “Hensel also argues that the new sign ordinance was ‘enacted and selectively … enforced against [her] because of hostility towards her liberal viewpoints.’ Suffice it to say, the record does not support these claims.”
The city’s new bench ordinance was also found to be constitutional.
The decision states, “The Court concludes the new bench ordinance – like the new sign ordinance – is a content-neutral time, place, and manner regulation, and Hensel’s moving-target allegations have not provided any clear basis to undermine that conclusion. Accordingly, her challenge to the new bench ordinance fails.”
The court found the old bench ordinance unconstitutional as it allowed the city to control not only whether a bench could be erected and where, but also the wording used in the advertising on the bench.
A date and time for a jury trial, in the matter of the old bench ordinance, will be set to determine any damages for Hensel. It will most likely be held in Duluth, Reuvers said.
Hensel indicated in an email that she and her attorneys, Larry Frost and Bruce Fein, are considering whether or not to appeal the decision.
Frost wrote in an email Wednesday, “Co-counsel and I want to read the opinion thoroughly and discuss it further, then discuss it with Robin, before making any public statements.”
Reuvers said there is no right to any appeal until the entire case is over, after the trial.
At that point, the parties would have the right to appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, he said.
A link to the PDF file containing the Judge’s entire 31-page decision can be found below, as well as the defense’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit and the motion submitted to the court by Hensel’s attorneys for a summary judgment in the case.