Lines of civility questioned in handcuff incident at Duluth school meeting
DULUTH When does criticism become personal attack? And did Loren Martell cross that line during Tuesday's Duluth School Board meeting? Martell, an opponent of a school district proposal called the Red Plan, was escorted from the meeting in handcu...
When does criticism become personal attack? And did Loren Martell cross that line during Tuesday's Duluth School Board meeting?
Martell, an opponent of a school district proposal called the Red Plan, was escorted from the meeting in handcuffs by a Duluth police officer after refusing board Chairman Tim Grover's order that he leave the podium. Grover said Martell had violated the board's policy against making personal attacks.
In an interview on Wednesday, Grover declined to say what he considered to be personal attacks.
"You want me to define that? Well, I'm not going to go there," Grover said. "The speakers ... are told that personal attacks will not be tolerated, and if they violate those rules, which the speaker did last night, they're going to be asked to leave the podium."
Martell, who had planned to read statements Grover made about the Red Plan when he campaigned for the board, denied that he had made personal attacks.
"I didn't swear," Martell said. "I didn't make any gestures. I didn't call anybody names. I just was merely expressing my passionate belief that Mr. Grover has betrayed his constituents."
Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said there's no clear definition of a personal attack. What is clear is that a board can't remove a speaker merely because they don't like what the speaker has to say.
"You can clearly remove (a person) for disrupting the meeting, either physically or orally by yelling, shouting, refusing to stop talking. That's all OK," Anfinson said. "What would not be OK as a matter of the First Amendment would be for someone to be removed or even threatened with removal if the board did not like the content of what the person was stating."
Like the School Board, the Duluth City Council limits speakers during its public-comments section to 3 minutes and prohibits personal attacks. Council President Jeff Anderson said he hasn't seen anyone removed from a meeting during his three years on the council, but he has ruled speakers -- and even fellow council members -- out of order.
Anderson said he asks for a police presence at meetings if an issue is expected to draw heated discussion and would call on police to remove someone "if I thought somebody was completely out of line."
Although the council values public comment, it's not required to provide that opportunity, Anderson noted. "It's a privilege, not a right."
Anfinson confirmed that. "The (Minnesota) open meetings law guarantees your right to observe and attend," he said. "It absolutely does not establish a right to talk."
Gary Eckenberg, deputy administrator for St. Louis County, said speakers at County Board meetings are limited to 5 minutes and expected to adhere to a civility code that was passed as part of a board resolution in 2003.
A person who has been removed has little recourse, Anfinson said. He has seen a handful of cases when boards were sued by someone who was removed from a meeting, but didn't know of any that actually went to court.
"It would be a tough case to get much traction on," Anfinson said. "But it's not impossible."
It's rare for anyone to be removed from a public meeting in Minnesota, Anfinson added. "In the vast majority of cases when the threat (of removal) is made, the person does stop."
In Martell's case, he not only refused to leave the podium but actually placed his hands behind his back in an apparent invitation to the officer to cuff him.
Martell said he wasn't planning any legal action, but vowed to fight any action against him. During Tuesday's incident, he demanded to know what he was being charged with, and the officer said he was trespassing. But Brad Wick, Duluth police public information officer, said on Wednesday that Martell wasn't charged with anything.
The drama is likely to resume at a future meeting.
"I intend to try to read those statements again," Martell said. "I think that (Grover) has no right to censor them. There's a democratic principle at stake."
The Duluth News Tribune and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.