Free speech flip-flop

Park Board reverses itself - now, no permit required to distribute campaign literature in the parks

After taking a public relations beating and reviewing First Amendment case law, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board administration has reversed itself and will no longer require political candidates to get a permit to hand out literature in the parks.

The new policy also allows advocacy groups - pro-choice, pro-life, environmental causes and other noncommercial ventures - to distribute literature in the parks without a permit, if they have 50 or fewer people, said Don Siggelkow, General Manager for administration.

The decision comes in the wake of a June 8 incident that raised significant free speech issues and drew the skeptical eye of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota.

Superintendent Jon Gurban summoned park police to deal with Park Board candidate Jason Stone, who was handing out campaign literature at Pearl Park, 414 E. Diamond Lake Road, without a required permit. He did not stop when asked, citing his free speech rights.

Three squads answered the 911 call - two park police officers driving solo and two Minneapolis officers, according to discussion at the June 15 Park Board meeting.

The incident resulted in critical Park Board press in columns and editorials in the Minneapolis Observer, Star Tribune and Southwest Journal.

Park Board staff initially defended the policy, saying if it did not regulate politically protected speech, park users would have to run a gauntlet of campaigners and advocacy groups. It would detract from a peaceful park experience, Siggelkow said before the policy was reversed.

The Park Board voted June 15 to direct Gurban, Park Board President Jon Olson and legal counsel Brian Rice to develop a hiring recommendation for a First Amendment expert to review policies.

At the Park Board meeting, Commissioner Walt Dziedzic pressed for a new look at the decade-old policy, calling the Park Board "amateurs" when it comes to First Amendment issues. "If we go to court on some of these issues, we are going to lose," he said.

Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota had weighed in, saying the Park Board policy violated constitutionally protected speech. The ACLU has received more calls about the Stone incident than it did about overturning the state's sodomy laws, Samuelson said.

"We were surprised," he said. "I didn't know there was such a passion attached to the Park Board."

The Olson-Gurban-Rice report was due July 6, but it didn't take that long.

By June 23, Park Board leadership reviewed First Amendment cases and issued a memo eliminating the permit requirement for politically protected speech, such as handing out literature.

Does it change Gurban's thinking on his June 8 confrontation with Stone?

"I don't believe that he deserves an apology," Gurban said. "He was not in compliance with those regulations" in effect at the time.

Permits required

Since 1991, the Park Board staff had a policy that stated a person must have a park permit for: "The sale, distribution, or circulation or any leaflets, handbills, notices, pamphlets, books, documents or paper of any kind, and the solicitation of signatures on a petition."

Candidates or others wishing to distribute literature around the Chain of Lakes or other city parkland in the regional system had to buy a $35 permit, Siggelkow said. They also had to provide a $150 refundable damage deposit and insurance indemnifying the park - the same as anyone getting a facility use permit.

Permits for distributing literature in neighborhood parks, such as Pearl, Pershing or Armatage, were free, he said.

People who want to hand out literature had to negotiate with Park Board staff regarding where in the park they would be, Siggelkow said. Further, candidates had to be behind a table, so people come to them.

Policies at other park systems vary.

Bob Bierscheid, director of St. Paul Parks and Recreation, said people are allowed to hand out literature in city parks, within certain rules, no permit required.

Similar to Minneapolis' old policy, Three Rivers Park District (formerly Hennepin County Parks) requires candidates to get a free permit to hand out literature.

Commissioner Vivian Mason said she had never seen the permit policy enforced. Stone said the Minneapolis Park Board has resurrected a policy that it had not used.

It appears that candidates rarely if ever applied for individual permits.

Siggelkow said if candidates had a table at an event such as Juneteenth, the event's permit covered them without needing an individual permit. He did not recall a candidate applying for an individual permit in a city regional park in the past five years.

Gurban said the new policy asks candidates and others handing out literature to use common sense.

"Please do not block access or egress to park buildings or block or impede traffic on parkways or paths," it says. "Do not litter or bother parents and guardians who may have children in wading pools or people playing on athletic fields. Most importantly, the peaceful enjoyment and solitude of park patrons must be respected."

The trigger

On June 8, the Park Board held a public open house at Pearl Park to discuss plans for the new Edward Solomon Park near East 58th Street & Cedar Avenue South.

According to Stone, he stood 10 feet from the park's main entrance - not obstructing it - and handed out literature. Gurban saw him and angrily confronted him, Stone said.

"There was a gentleman next to me who was intimidated enough by Gurban that he actually offered the piece of lit I had given him to Gurban," Stone said.

Gurban has a very different story to tell. He said Stone attended a June 1 Park Board meeting where staff discussed park campaigning regulations - and Stone knew he needed a permit to hand out literature.

He repeatedly asked Stone to stop handing out literature on park property, but Stone refused, Gurban said. He said his response was direct, not angry.

"Jason would say: 'How are you this evening?'" Gurban said. "My response would be, 'Jason, you can't do this. And you know better. You were at that meeting last Wednesday night. Stop doing this.'"

Stone says he told Gurban that he respected the superintendent's perspective but believed he had a right to distribute literature. Gurban, according to Stone, responded that he didn't think Stone respected him, and went inside the building to have staff call police.

Gurban said he told Stone he gave him no choice but to call park police and have him removed. (Gurban asked park staff to make the call, and did not know that protocol required them to call 911, he said.)

Stone said he moved 100 feet away to a sidewalk that led to the park facility but was still on park property.

Police arrived and told Stone he could not distribute literature on "private property." He responded the park was public property and police said: "sort of."

"The officers even directed me to remove my nametag before entering the park building," Stone said.

Said Gurban, "Am I happy three squad cars showed up? No, I am not. I know those squad cars have better things to do than to deal with an issue like this. If I was Jason Stone, I would be a little bit embarrassed about that. All Jason had to do was to stop handing out his literature."

Stone said he put his literature in the car, removed his nametag, and went to the meeting. He called the superintendent's actions "ludicrous." Stone has criticized the Park Board's leadership, he said, and he believes Gurban's actions were motivated by his dislike for Stone's politics.

Gurban said his actions had nothing to do with Stone's political views.

"I don't know what his message is," Gurban said. "I haven't read his campaign literature. I have never taken his campaign literature."

Stone said Gurban was well aware of his Park Board criticisms. Stone provided a copy of an e-mail exchange between himself and Gurban. In it, Stone asked for certain budget figures, suggesting they were either "secret or unknown,"

Gurban's response called Stone's suggestion "stupid," "irresponsible" and "inflammatory."

Stone said he was not embarrassed by his actions. He called Gurban's decision to call police an overreaction. He said it was no publicity stunt.

"I couldn't have anticipated the exaggerated response to a lone candidate quietly handing out literature in a park," he said. "Trying to cast blame on other parties for a bad policy and bad response is irresponsible."

Commissioner Mason, a Gurban critic, blamed the superintendent for the Stone incident. She offered a resolution June 15 requiring him to write a formal, public apology to Stone and have him reimburse the Park Board for the wasted police time.

On a voice vote, Mason's was the only audible "aye."