Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

State v. Hensel

Supreme Court of Minnesota

September 13, 2017

State of Minnesota, Respondent,
v.
Robin Lyne Hensel, Appellant.

         Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Paul D. Reuvers, Nathan C. Midolo, Iverson Reuvers Condon, Bloomington, Minnesota, for respondent.

          Kevin C. Riach, David D. Coyle, Fredrikson & Byron, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota, for appellant.

          Teresa Nelson, American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Scott M. Flaherty, Briggs and Morgan, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.

          Cort C. Holten, Jeffrey D. Bores, Gary K. Luloff, Chestnut Cambronne PA, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association Legal Defense Fund.

          Susan L. Naughton, League of Minnesota Cities, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for amici curiae League of Minnesota Cities, Association of Minnesota Counties, and Minnesota Association of Townships.

         SYLLABUS

         1. Minnesota Statutes § 609.72, subd. 1(2) (2016), is facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution because it is substantially overbroad.

         2. Because there is no reasonable narrowing construction of Minn. Stat. § 609.72, subd. 1(2), the remedy for the First Amendment violation is to invalidate the statute.

         Reversed and remanded.

          OPINION

          STRAS, Justice.

         This case requires us to determine whether the part of Minnesota's disorderly-conduct statute that prohibits "disturb[ing]" assemblies or meetings, Minn. Stat. § 609.72, subd. 1(2) (2016), is unconstitutional under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Both the district court and the court of appeals concluded that the statute is constitutional. Because Minn. Stat. § 609.72, subd. 1(2), violates the First Amendment and there is no reasonable narrowing construction of the statute, we reverse.

         FACTS

         The facts of this case, which arose out of two Little Falls City Council meetings, are undisputed. At the first of the two meetings, appellant Robin Lyne Hensel sat in the public gallery, which was about 15 to 20 feet from a raised dais located at the front of the room and reserved for city-council members. Tables and chairs were positioned in the area between the gallery and the dais.

         During the meeting, Hensel, who was sitting in the front row of the gallery, displayed signs that depicted dead and deformed children. These signs, which were approximately 4-feet long and 4-feet high, along with a sign on her head, obstructed the view of those seated behind her, causing the City Council president to grant permission to affected members of the gallery to come forward and sit in the chairs available at the front of the room. Hensel's actions eventually led the City Council to adjourn and reschedule the meeting.

         Four days later, the City Council reconvened in the same room, but this time there were no tables or chairs in the area between the gallery and the dais. Rather than sitting in the gallery, as she had at the previous meeting, Hensel took one of the folding chairs from the gallery and placed it in the space previously occupied by the tables and chairs. Hensel refused multiple requests to return to the gallery and challenged the City Council by demanding to see a policy that prohibited her from sitting there. Eventually, the Little Falls City Attorney warned Hensel that a police officer would remove her from the meeting room and issue her a ticket for disorderly conduct if she did not return to the gallery. When Hensel again refused a request to move, an officer escorted her from the room.

         Based on these events, the State charged Hensel with disorderly conduct under Minn. Stat. § 609.72, subd. 1(2). Before trial, Hensel moved to dismiss the charge, arguing, among other grounds, that the statute violated the First Amendment because it was unconstitutionally overbroad, unconstitutionally vague, and unconstitutional as applied to her case. The district court, in denying Hensel's motion, rejected her vagueness challenge, reasoning that the statutory language was clear and understandable. Hensel's overbreadth challenge, by contrast, presented a closer call. Even though the court concluded that Minn. Stat. § 609.72, subd. 1(2), was overbroad, it upheld the statute by narrowly construing it to require proof that "the disturbance in this case was caused by defendant's conduct itself and not the content of the activity's expression." Because Hensel's conduct fell within the contours of the revised statute, the court held that probable cause for the charges existed and that the as-applied challenge to the statute failed.

         At trial, Hensel indirectly renewed her challenge to the constitutionality of the disturbance-of-an-assembly-or-meeting statute, Minn. Stat. § 609.72, subd. 1(2), by requesting a jury instruction requiring the jury to find that her conduct, if expressive, constituted "fighting words." Hensel also sought another jury instruction requiring the jury to find that her disturbing conduct was completely separate from any protected expression. The district court denied both requests and convicted her of disorderly conduct after the jury returned a guilty verdict.

         The court of appeals affirmed Hensel's conviction, but disagreed with the district court's analysis of Hensel's overbreadth challenge. Specifically, the court of appeals held that the disturbance-of-an-assembly-or-meeting statute was a time, place, or manner restriction that was not subject to standard overbreadth analysis. State v. Hensel, 874 N.W.2d 245, 253 (Minn.App. 2016). Applying the relaxed test for time, place, or manner restrictions, the court concluded that the statute was constitutional and did not require a narrowing construction. Id. at 254-55. We granted Hensel's petition for review to evaluate the constitutionality of Minn. Stat. § 609.72, subd. 1(2).

         ANALYSIS

         The question presented in this case is whether the disturbance-of-an-assembly-or-meeting statute, Minn. Stat. § 609.72, subd. 1(2), violates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Each of Hensel's challenges-substantial overbreadth, void for vagueness, and instructional error-turns on the constitutionality of the statute. To evaluate Hensel's challenges, therefore, we apply a de novo standard of review. See Rew v. Bergstrom, 845 N.W.2d 764, 776 (Minn. 2014).

         I.

         The most sweeping of the three challenges is Hensel's argument that the disturbance-of-a-meeting-or-assembly statute is unconstitutionally overbroad. An overbreadth challenge is a facial attack on a statute in which the challenger must establish that "a substantial number of [a statute's] applications are unconstitutional, judged in relation to the statute's plainly legitimate sweep." United States v. Stevens, 559 U.S. 460, 473 (2010) (quoting Wash. State Grange v. Wash. State Republican Party, 552 U.S. 442, 449 n.6 (2008)). The rationale for allowing an overbreadth challenge, even when a statute is constitutional as applied in a particular circumstance, is that enforcement of an overbroad law chills protected speech, which "inhibit[s] the free exchange of ideas." United States v. Williams, 553 U.S. 285, 292 (2008).

         Hensel's claim is that the disturbance-of-a-meeting-or-assembly statute is overly broad and chills a "substantial" amount of protected speech and expression. Hensel notes that the statute could apply in countless circumstances, including outside the government-meeting context, such as a private conversation around one's dinner table or a gathering of two or more people on the street. Hensel also emphasizes that the statute could reach activities like uttering unpopular "political or personal views, " "[s]torming out of a meeting, " "[r]aising one's voice" to express displeasure, or even "brandishing signs or other symbols that some find offensive." Given the myriad ways in which the State could enforce the statute against protected speech and expressive conduct, Hensel argues, the statute is substantially overbroad.

         A.

         To evaluate Hensel's overbreadth claim, the first step is to interpret the statute itself to determine whether it includes protected speech or expressive conduct within its coverage. See Williams, 553 U.S. at 293. After all, "it is impossible to determine whether a statute reaches too far without first knowing what the statute covers." Id. The disturbance-of-a-meeting-or-assembly statute, Minn. Stat. § 609.72, subd. 1(2), provides as follows:

Whoever does any of the following in a public or private place, including on a school bus, knowing, or having reasonable grounds to know that it will, or will tend to, alarm, anger or disturb others or provoke an assault or breach of the peace, is guilty of disorderly conduct, which is a misdemeanor:
. . .
(2) disturbs an assembly or meeting, not unlawful in its character . . . .

         The statute is broad and unambiguous, prohibiting any conduct or speech that "disturbs an assembly or meeting, " whether expressive or not. Id. An individual could violate the statute by, for example, wearing an offensive t-shirt, using harsh words in addressing another person, or even raising one's voice in a speech. To be sure, the statute also conceivably covers fighting words, obscene speech, and true threats-all categories of unprotected speech. See Stevens, 559 U.S. at 468, 470 (discussing "historically unprotected categories of speech, " including obscenity); Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343, 359-60 (2003) (explaining that states may ban fighting words and true threats). But it also regulates protected expression. In fact, the plain language of the disturbance-of-a-meeting-or-assembly statute, by using the phrase "will tend to, " arguably targets expressive activity of a controversial nature, given that it defines the mens-rea element of the offense by reference to the predicted effect of the speech or conduct on others, not its purpose.

         The State seizes on the fact that the statute criminalizes "disorderly conduct" to argue that the disturbance-of-a-meeting-or-assembly statute does not regulate any protected expression at all. The State's argument is no more persuasive here than it was in State v. Machholz, a case in which we considered an overbreadth challenge to the felony-harassment statute. 574 N.W.2d 415, 419 (Minn. 1998). Like the disturbance-of-a-meeting-or-assembly statute, the felony-harassment statute also regulated conduct. In Machholz, the statute criminalized conduct "that interfere[d] with another person or intrude[d] on the person's privacy or liberty." Id. (quoting Minn. Stat. § 609.749, subd. 2(7) (1996)) (internal quotation marks omitted). We held there, in language that is equally applicable here, that "[t]here is no question that the harassing conduct proscribed by [the statute] does encompass expressive activity. The broad reach of the statutory language is not limited to nonexpressive conduct." Id. at 420. Here, in addition to regulating expressive conduct, the disturbance-of-a-meeting-or-assembly statute covers protected speech as well. Based on Machholz, therefore, we reject the State's characterization of the statute as regulating only unprotected, nonexpressive conduct.

         B.

         Having concluded that the disturbance-of-a-meeting-or-assembly statute regulates speech and conduct protected by the First Amendment, we move on to the second step of the analysis, which is to determine whether the statute is substantially overbroad. A statute is not substantially overbroad merely because "one can conceive of some impermissible applications." Williams, 553 U.S. at 303. Rather, "[a] statute is substantially overbroad . . . if, in addition to prohibiting unprotected speech, it also prohibits a substantial amount of constitutionally protected speech." State v. Washington-Davis, 881 N.W.2d 531, 539 (Minn. 2016); see Broadrick v. Oklahoma, 413 U.S. 601, 615 (1973).

         Once again, the statute's plain language is our guide to determining the amount of protected speech and expressive conduct regulated by the statute. The statute sets forth its mens-rea element in the introductory clause, which requires the offender to "know[], or hav[e] reasonable grounds to know that [the activity] will, or will tend to, alarm, anger or disturb others or provoke an assault or breach of the peace." Minn. Stat. § 609.72, subd. 1 (2016). Under the statute, therefore, even negligent activity will subject an individual to criminal liability. The actus-reus element is even broader. Although an individual can commit disorderly conduct in a number of ways, the disturbance-of-a-meeting-or-assembly statute prohibits any act that "disturbs an assembly or meeting, not unlawful in its character." Id., subd. 1(2).

         The use e actus-reus element does not place any meaningful limitation on the statute's scope. To "disturb" is "[t]o break up or destroy the tranquility, order, or settled state of, " "[t]o interfere with; interrupt, " and "[t]o intrude on; inconvenience." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 525 (5th ed. 2011); see Webster's Third New International Dictionary 661 (2002) (defining "disturb" as "to destroy the rest, tranquility, or settled state of, " "to throw into confusion or disorder, " and "to interfere with"). The statute's attendant-circumstance element, which requires the disturbance to occur at a "meeting" or "assembly, " also does not limit the breadth of the statute in any significant way. The word "meeting" includes "[any] assembly or gathering of people, as for a business, social, or religious purpose." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language at 1094; see Webster's Third New International Dictionary at 1404. Similarly, "assembly" means "[a] group of persons gathered together for a common reason." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language at 107; see Webster's Third New International Dictionary at 131.

         Combining its component parts, the statute prohibits any activity, whether expressive or not, that "interferes with" or destroys the "tranquility" of any lawful "gathering of people" who share a common purpose or reason for gathering, so long as the individual knows, or has reason to know, that the activity will, or will tend to, disturb others. Minn. Stat. § 609.72, subd. 1(2). This statute presents us with a "criminal prohibition of alarming breadth." Stevens, 559 U.S. at 474. It criminalizes a public speech that "criticize[s] various political and racial groups . . . as inimical to the nation's welfare." Terminiello v. City of Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 3 (1949). It prohibits an individual from wearing a jacket containing an offensive inscription to a meeting. See Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 16 (1971). And certainly, it would forbid someone from burning the American flag on a public street. See Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 399 (1989). In addition to being disruptive of gatherings of all kinds, all of these actions share a common quality: they are protected under the First Amendment. Due to the countless ways in which Minn. Stat. § 609.72, subd. 1(2), can prohibit and chill protected expression, we conclude that the statute facially violates the First Amendment's overbreadth doctrine.

         We reached a similar conclusion in Machholz. The statute in Machholz prohibited "harassing conduct that interfere[d] with another person or intrude[d] on the person's privacy or liberty." 574 N.W.2d at 418 (quoting Minn. Stat. § 609.749, subd. 2(7) (1996)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Applying the plain language of the statute, we emphasized that it swept "in a whole spectrum of constitutionally protected activity, " including burning a cross at a political rally and conducting a Nazi march in a town filled with Holocaust survivors. Id. at 420 (citing Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969), and Nat'l Socialist Party of Am. v. Skokie, 432 U.S. 43 (1977)). We held that the felony-harassment statute, as it was then drafted, violated the First Amendment's overbreadth doctrine. Id. at 421. Our decision in Machholz, as well as our conclusion here, is consistent with the weight of authority from around the country. See, e.g., In re Kay, 464 P.2d 142, 146, 149 (Cal. 1970) (concluding that a statute prohibiting "willfully disturb[ing] or break[ing] up any assembly or meeting, not unlawful in its character, " as "literally applied, " violated the First Amendment (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted)); State v. Fielden, 629 S.E.2d 252, 254, 256 (Ga. 2006) (invalidating a statute on First Amendment grounds that prohibited "recklessly or knowingly commit[ting] any act which may reasonably be expected to prevent or disrupt a lawful meeting, gathering, or procession" (citation ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.