A Medford neighborhood woke Friday morning to see a profanity-laced anti-President Joe Biden flag in a yard next to a Medford school bus stop and a Steele County Sheriff’s Office squad car parked in the driveway underneath the flag.
The flag stating, “(Expletive) Biden and (expletive) you for voting for him,” has resulted in an internal investigation at the department and sparked a conversation in the neighborhood about when free speech goes too far.
By noon Friday, the flag at the deputy’s home had been removed. Sheriff Lon Thiele said the incident is currently under investigation but it was disappointing that the flag was seen near a squad car.
“That’s not the view I want children to see from their Sheriff’s Office,” Thiele said. “Freedom of speech is what our forefathers wanted and put in the Constitution, but we want [the department] to be seen in a lot better light than this negative message.”
According to the Sheriff’s Office’s workplace policies and code of conduct, employees are prohibited from using “speech or expression that, while not made pursuant to an official duty, is significantly linked to or related to the Steele County Sheriff’s Office and tends to compromise or damage the mission, function, reputation or professionalism of the Steele County Sheriff’s Office or its employees.”
Jeff Wetmore, who has lived in Medford for 30 years and identifies himself as someone who “just doesn’t get into politics with people,” said he felt both anger and frustration to see the flag at his neighbor’s house.
“I just don’t think it’s right,” Wetmore said, adding that he is thankful his own children are of ages where he doesn’t have to explain it to them. “Regardless of the political tone of what side of the aisle you want to be on, I was angry that there’s an F-anybody sign or flag even out there, let alone in a neighborhood with kids everywhere. It just seemed vulgar to me.”
Though the profanity found in the flag was upsetting for Wetmore and his neighbors, Wetmore said it caused him to question if he would be treated differently by law enforcement if he identified as a member of a specific political party.
“You can’t help but wonder that – and I would feel that same way if the flag said ‘F-Trump,’” Wetmore said. “If someone has that strong of an opinion, I don’t know how you could not feel like they might treat you differently if you think differently than them. How could anyone not think that?”
Thiele asserted that the flag does not represent the views of the Sheriff’s Office and that no resident of Steele County should fear unfair treatment from local law enforcement.
“No member of law enforcement is going to be pulling people over for their right to speak their mind,” Thiele said. “Not in my office they’re not going to.”
This particular flag has gained public attention throughout the nation, with various people flying it outside of their homes and upsetting neighbors for its profanity. Though some people may consider the flag offensive and publicly indecent, University of Minnesota Law Professor David Schultz said it is protected by the First Amendment.
“Courts are always going to err on the side of you can say what you want to say,” Schultz said, citing court cases Brandenburg v. Ohio and Cohen v. California as two landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions that set a precedent for interpreting the First Amendment.
“After these two cases, you’ve got a pretty broad leeway in your private life to say what you want,” said Schultz, who is an expert in First Amendment law. “When it comes to your private life, and especially in this case where it was displayed on private property, while it can be distasteful and maybe not a good thing to do, at the end of the day the First Amendment will protect it.”
Despite the language in the Sheriff’s Office workplace policies, Schultz said the fact that the department is a public employer complicates the type of disciplinary action that could be taken against the deputy.
“As a public employee, [the deputy] enjoys their First Amendment right of free speech as a citizen. If this was a private employer, it would be a piece of cake and they could fire the employee in a second – no problem – for going against their policy,” Schultz said. Additionally, Schultz said the fact that the Steele County deputies are unionized also limits disciplinary action that can be taken, but union negotiations could provide disciplinary action plans that simplify the employer’s options as well.
This is not the first time language by a member of law enforcement in the region – and free speech – has been called into question. In February 2018, a Rice County deputy was demoted for comments he made on social media while off duty the previous fall about Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile who was shot and killed by a St. Anthony police officer during a traffic stop. In October 2019, the Third District Court affirmed an arbitrator’s finding that Rice County was justified in their disciplinary action, stating the demotion was “supported by substantial evidence” and that the deputy himself admitted to several policy violations.
The judge in that case, Judge Carol Hanks, noted in her findings that not all speech is protected and that the Rice County Sheriff’s Office has the right to restrict some speech of its employees.
“The court’s decision does not suggest appellant is not entitled to his own opinions and beliefs,” Hanks wrote in 2019. “However, the manner and context in which those opinions are communicated is not afforded unlimited protection by the First Amendment.”
To speak or not to speak
While the First Amendment affords free speech protections, Schultz noted that there are also ethical considerations, such as the flag’s impact on the neighborhood. It’s all part of a broader debate on how far people should really go to express their views.
“Theoretically we can go an awful long way,” Schultz continued. “But in the interest of civility and getting along, aren’t there perhaps times where we don’t need to push it that hard? There is a great old thing in First Amendment law classes that goes: You have the right to free speech, but sometimes you are just better off not exercising that right.”
Wetmore said that while he is a strong believer in free speech, he was happy to see the flag taken down once the Sheriff’s Office was made aware of how it made some neighbors feel.
“I don’t want the government telling [the deputy] they have to take it down, because free speech is about the government not being able to tell you what you can and cannot say,” Wetmore said. “But that doesn’t mean everything you say is just OK to say, there are still ramifications to your speech. It doesn’t mean you can say everything you want and you won’t be held responsible.”
Despite opposition from city staff, Faribault’s Planning Commission has put its seal of approval on plans to bring an auto repair shop to the east edge of town.
Earlier this year, longtime Heavy Metal Customs owner Mike Graham and his wife Megan closed on a 3.3-acre lot at 1507 St. Paul Ave., previously used as an apple orchard’s retail site. It also includes an office and sales area.
Despite a relatively prime location at the intersection of County Roads 20 and 25, the lot has been abandoned for some time. After several years working out of a shop located in Medford, Mike Graham wants to return his business to Faribault with an expanded business model.
Graham announced plans to open Graham’s Auto Garage on his Facebook page in February, but the new business was far from a done deal. That’s because under the city’s Comprehensive Plan, the area is designated for future residential use, not commercial.
The Grahams met virtually with the Planning Commission on Feb. 16 to gauge interest in such a rezoning. They received a favorable response, with commissioners expressing a belief that the business would significantly benefit the neighborhood and Faribault as a whole. Based on the favorable response, the Grahams submitted formal documentation on March 4. If approved, their application would amend the area in the Comprehensive Plan from Residential to Mixed Use and rezone the site from Open Space/Agricultural to Highway Commercial.
A change in the site’s use would be nothing new, as city staff believe that the previous owners had most recently converted the site for a residential rental without permission. Nonetheless, the city’s Development Review Commission came out in opposition to the proposal.
That group, composed of city staff focused on development and includes City Planner Dave Wanberg and Planning Coordinator Peter Waldock, opposed the development on the grounds that it would mark an abrupt and dramatic deviation from a just-approved Comprehensive Plan.
According to the DRC, the proposal could allow “rather intense use of the property” that doesn’t fit in with the neighborhood, which is mainly residential with nearby farmland and a church. It recommended that the business instead go in an established commercial district.
Planning Commission member and former Mayor Chuck Ackman was conflicted, but sided with the DRC. While eager to see the property improved, Ackman argued that the northeast part of town is best left for residential development.
Ackman cited Donahue’s Greenhouse as an example of a business that was long ago given approval to set up shop in a residential area. While Donahue’s has proven a long-term success, it remains a bit of an outlier in an otherwise heavily residential area.
“If you were to start from scratch, Donahue’s likely wouldn’t be there,” he said.
Ackman’s colleague Faysel Ali was torn and ultimately decided to abstain from voting. Ali said he supports those who want to invest in Faribault, but was concerned that approving the change would set a bad precedent, inviting more development in otherwise residential areas.
The DRC raised concerns that the development could encourage additional commercial development in the neighborhood, potentially impacting quality of life. Conversely, Mike Graham argued it would benefit the neighborhood by adding services available only on the other side of town.
“You’ve got school for the blind, school for the deaf, Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the prison and the hospital all on the east side of town — and zero places for people to have anything serviced,” he said. “I think that it would benefit that side of town greatly.”
Other members of the Planning Commission agreed and gave the development their seal of approval. For Dave Albers, Graham’s business vision of “high-end auto repair” was appealing and assuaged many of his concerns.
“It will be different than a chop shop. I see it as high end auto repair,” he said. “There won’t be 15-20 vehicles parked outside, no constant trail of vehicles coming out.”
Steve White agreed, noting that the property has long been abandoned and is very much in need of an upgrade. Even with apartments or other residential developments likely coming to the area, he said the central location could still make for a good spot for a business.
The Grahams were grateful for the Planning Commission’s support, even though the City Council needs to provide final approval. They pledged to keep up with maintenance and make improvements to the site, including adding a new paved parking lot.
“We want to have our business here in Faribault because we love this community,” added Megan. “We hope to be able to provide services that my husband is very good at to the local community.”
A majority of Rice County commissioners already favored a solo venture on an undeveloped piece of property, but after two Minnesota Department of Corrections officials on Tuesday told the board not to consider using space in Steele County’s detention center as a way to avoid building a new $49.2 million jail, the decision appears all but made.
“I don’t believe it’s a viable solution,” said Sarah Johnson, who works in enforcement and inspections for the DOC.
Near the end of a two-hour morning work session, four of the five commissioners said they believe a new jail is what’s best for Rice County. No vote on the matter is expected before April 27.
Commissioners Dave Miller and Steve Underdahl, who sat on a task force looking into options for expanding or replacing the jail, which the DOC flagged as having inadequate programming and recreation space, and threatened to limit the length of time it can house inmates, were convinced the best option is a new jail when a consultant’s recommendations were unveiled earlier this year. But at the urging of Commissioner Galen Malecha, the board then asked the task force to look into a possible collaboration with Steele County, which is undergoing a jail study of its own.
But unlike Rice, Steele County’s detention center in Owatonna is oversized and Steele County commissioners are considering using a portion of the center for something other than a jail.
“Just because they have more beds doesn’t mean you can use them for what you need,” said Johnson, explaining that not all jail beds are equal.
When inmates are brought into a jail facility they’re assessed and given a classification based on gender, security risk, and medical and mental health needs. The Department of Corrections requires that an inmate’s classification matches the classification of the bed they occupy: high security, special needs, etc.
Jen Pfeifer, Johnson’s DOC colleague, worked in Steele County for 20 years. Its detention center has eight special needs beds, she said, adding that that’s not enough for both Rice and Steele counties.
“The special needs beds were full every day I worked in Steele County. Every day,” she told the Rice County Board of Commissioners.
Rice County Administrator Sara Folsted said several members of the Jail Study Task Force met with two Steele County commissioner to discuss possible collaborations. On Tuesday afternoon she said that what they learned about available space in Steele County’s detention center and the potential for collaboration was shared by the DOC’s Johnson and Pfeifer.
It’s not just space. Utilizing space in Owatonna to house Rice County inmates would be a tremendous burden for law enforcement in Northfield, Dundas and Lonsdale, Northfield Police Chief Mark Elliott told the board. Transporting suspects to the Rice County Jail in Faribault now takes Northfield officers on average of 50 minutes round trip. A move to Owatonna would increase the trip to 90 minutes, leaving college city officers shorthanded for an even longer period of time. And, he said, it puts an officer and suspect on I-35 which is “notoriously hazardous in the winter.”
It’s also an equity issue, he said. Many inmates and their families would be even farther apart with a move to Owatonna. And with no intercity transit and a large number of inmates’ family members lacking their own transportation, support systems would be weakened.
Those support systems are paramount, he said, important for inmates and the children of inmates who want and need to see their parents.
“Distance and availability are real world problems,” he said.
The sticker shock of a $49 million price tag hasn’t worn off, said Rice County Commissioner Dave Miller. But he and three of his colleagues expressed support for a brand new jail. Consultants working with the task force introduced two additional options Tuesday.
One involved constructing a new jail and remodeling the current law enforcement center for the Sheriff’s Office’s needs at a cost of $46.6 million. The other would have let the facility house inmates for up to 90 days at a cost of $44.3 million. Inmates needing to be housed longer than that would need to go to another jail, which would bring an additional cost. Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn estimated that at $500,000 annually in late 2019.
Commissioner Malecha, unsatisfied with the results, felt the outcome was predetermined.
“I don’t think we gave it our best effort,” he said. “There were too many influences who wanted a new jail.”
While Miller bristled at the suggestion, Underdahl reiterated his comments from prior meetings, saying he initially felt a new jail was the last on his list of options.
“Education has opened my eyes,” he said of his work on the Jail Study Task Force.
Malecha, undeterred, pressed for a pair of public input sessions. Those are set for 8:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 20.