When Bill McGrath and the rest of his group arrived at Bridge Square last Saturday to host their weekly silent war protest, they thought it would be a typical Saturday, the same as all the others for the last 13 years.
However, they were soon approached by a Northfield police officer, who said there had been a complaint and that the group would have to move to “another public sidewalk,” off Bridge Square.
According to an incident report filed that day, the complaint came in from Anna Kochendorfer, who said she was from one of the groups with a permit to use Bridge Square and that the protesters wouldn’t leave when she asked them.
What happened next is a matter of conflicting opinion. McGrath said the officer kept telling group members that they would have to move to another location, but they refused. Police Chief Monte Nelson said Saturday’s protest “wasn’t really broken up,” by police and that the officer asked the group to move and it eventually did.
City Administrator Tim Madigan sent a report to city councilors stating that both the Riverwalk Market Fair and the Vintage Band groups had obtained city permits to use Bridge Square on Saturday, “which gives them control of the area for their events.”
“It should be noted that no one challenged the right of this group to express themselves, and public space was available for them to do so,” Madigan wrote in the report.
He said later in an interview with the Northfield News that there are several types of park permits people can apply for, such as community events licenses, park use permits and Bridge Square reservations. He also said more than one group can hold a permit at the same time, though that depends on the situation.
During the time of McGrath’s silent vigil, his group did not have a permit for any event on Bridge Square.
McGrath said he suspects someone complained because of the content of his group’s signs, which mentioned the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Gaza strip. However, his real concern is whether his group was pushed out of Bridge Square, a city park and public space, because other groups had reserved the area through permits.
“Nobody has ever, ever done anything like this at Bridge Square at noon at Saturdays,” he said. “To say that we cannot stand in a public place... They should not be able to make laws that run contrary to the law of the land.”
Krin Finger, owner of the Rare Pair, has made use of the city’s Bridge Square reservation process to reserve the area from 1-5 p.m. every Saturday from now until the Defeat of Jesse James Days, with the plan to reserve the space again from DJJD to Christmas and beyond.
She said she decided to reserve the space with a community event permit, in this case titled, “Take Back Bridge Square,” because of problems area businesses have had with visiting street preachers who she says harass their customers.
A “community event” that would qualify for a city permit is defined on the city’s website as “an outdoor gathering of at least 25 individuals on public property, assembled with a common purpose.” Finger said she does not have an actual event planned for the square but has only reserved the space so that she can tell the street preachers to leave.
“We all believe in freedom of speech, but [the street preachers have] become a hindrance to people walking into the door,” Finger said. “We felt it was becoming more aggressive, and it was just a matter of time before this becomes offensive.”
Finger said many downtown businesses, as well as the Northfield Downtown Development Corporation and the Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce, agreed with her obtaining the permit, and added that the city had been helpful throughout the process.
“We heard from many downtown business owners, over a period of many weeks, that they and their customers felt threatened by what sounds like angry and aggressive behavior by these street preachers,” said NDDC Executive Director Ross Currier in an email to the News. “We urged them to contact the Northfield Police Department and we believe that a group of the business owners did meet with representatives from the Police Department.”
Finger said she’s not concerned about McGrath’s silent vigil, which happens earlier in the day on Saturdays and doesn’t affect her customers. But she said she is prepared to approach the street preachers to tell them they’re “not invited” to her event. She said she believes because she has a permit, she can call the police if necessary and the group will be forced to leave Bridge Square.
Nelson said there is no official ordinance his officers can enforce regarding the permits and public space. He added he is still working to figure out how to address situations like these, and he doesn’t have a clear answer yet.
“The problem is, when someone reserves Bridge Square, they’re reserving that area,” he said. “It’s a public area. The million dollar question is, ‘Do they have the ability, if someone comes into some conflict, to say they want them moved across the street?’ That’s what we’re working to try to get a solution to do. There’s not a black and white answer.”
While obtaining a permit could give McGrath’s protest group more protection to stay at Bridge Square for its Saturday events, he said he won’t be applying for one, since “you don’t need a permit to silently stand and hold signs.”
He questioned whether the city can require park permits and cede control of public spaces to those holding the permits.
“Does this [permit] mean that a private group can keep certain kinds of people out of Bridge Square, or prevent the presence of dogs, smokers, babies, or cell phones?” he asked. “How can the city turn over a public space to a private entity and then let the private entity make up rules that contradict the U.S. Constitution?”
Kimberly Smith, who teaches constitutional law at Carleton College, said she doesn’t think the city is out of line with its permit process, which is similar to many other cities’ processes.
“Generally speaking, a local government can regulate the time, place and manner of speech,” she said. “It can’t suppress speech all together, but it can put reasonable restrictions on when and where people gather. The permit system is not unusual; it’s a pretty routine way of regulating when and where public speech happens. I don’t see anything on the face that’s illegitimate.”