Minnesota liberals are determined to undermine First Amendment rights

In Minnesota, when you want to speak, liberals pass laws to stop you. When you don’t want to speak, liberals pass laws to force you. Here is a short report on two recent examples of local officials exceeding their authority and how the Minnesota Voters Alliance (MVA) put an end to their unconstitutional acts in federal court.

On a cold November day in 2010, I was cast out of my Eden Prairie polling place for trying to vote while wearing a T-shirt with “Don’t Tread on Me” printed on it. The Tea Party movement was in high gear and Ramsey County elections manager Joe Mansky was determined to do something about it. So, he rushed together a policy banning certain apparel in polling places based on Minnesota Statute 211B.11, which empowered individual election judges to apply their biased judgments on what messages would be permitted.

Mansky cited “Election Integrity Watch” and Tea Party apparel as examples of prohibited speech. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie then seized on Mansky’s brilliant policy, added some token left-wing examples such as MoveOn.org, and distributed it throughout the state. Make no mistake, Ramsey County and the state were taking aim at conservatives and their growing impact on politics.

After initial victories over the MVA in federal district and appellate courts, the state’s luck ran out in May 2018, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the offending sentence in 211B.11 violated the First Amendment free speech rights of Minnesotans. At oral arguments, Justice Alito famously illustrated the absurd offensiveness of the law. He elicited from the Hennepin County attorney an admission that apparel with the First Amendment printed on it would be acceptable to wear but not the Second Amendment.

While the state was defending its policies aimed at preventing voters from speaking, Minneapolis and St. Paul city councils decided to attack the First Amendment from the opposite direction, passing ordinances forcing landlords to “speak” by requiring them to hand out voter registration applications and other materials to new tenants.

In February 2019, the MVA sued both cities in U.S. District Court, challenging the constitutionality of their ordinances. We argued that the U.S. Constitution prohibits “compelled speech” whereby private citizens are forced to act as couriers of the ideology of city government officials. The view that encouraging people to vote is a good thing cannot justify the government’s use of its powers to compel law-abiding citizens to promote that view.

In both cities, many renters are ineligible to vote, especially because the sanctuary status of Minneapolis and St. Paul encourages illegal aliens to live there. Landlords objected to being forced to promote voter registration to ineligible persons as well as to tenants who may have opposing views on public policies such as rent control. The cities are perfectly capable of distributing their materials without threatening landlords with fines and loss of their licenses.

On March 3, 2020, U.S. District Court Judge Wilhelmina M. Wright concluded that the ordinances are “facially unconstitutional” (that is, their plain language violates the rights of landlords in all instances and conditions in which the ordinances might be imposed) and “permanently enjoined [the cities] from enforcing” them.

We don’t know at this time whether the cities will appeal but, at least for now, this victory should put an end to efforts in the Minnesota legislature to extend those ordinances statewide.

A few useful lessons from these lengthy legal battles come to mind: liberals can be counted on to encroach on freedoms, the First Amendment is alive and well within the federal court system, and we should all be on alert for future attempts by the left to abuse their power.