Robin Hensel of Little Falls
LITTLE FALLS, Minn. - A central Minnesota peace activist has challenged her city's sign ordinance in federal court, saying that it amounts to an unconstitutional form of censorship.
"I said a prayer before I put the first sign out that my little signs would do some good, and they have led to many good things," Robin Hensel told KARE Friday.
Hensel is a grandmother, and belonged to the local Chamber of Commerce when she owned a silk and dried flower business in downtown Little Falls. But her yard, on the main road people take through the town, is filled with pro-peace signs in a variety of sized.
"Little Falls is a very conservative area and so putting the signs in my yard was something different, something challenging," Hensel remarked.
The city put her on notice last February, tell Hensel the sizes of her signs and the sheer number of them was out of compliance with the local sign ordinance. That law limits homeowners to a total of eight square feet of signage, with no one side of the rectangle being longer than two feet.
Authorities told Hensel she faced the prospect of being ticketed and fined if she didn't bring her yard into compliance.
Hensel then sued the city in U.S. District Court, asserting that the Little Falls is attempting to limit her freedom of expression and other constitutional rights.
The core question is whether the city is moving to regulate Hensel's signs because of the content of her messages or because of factors that have led most cities in America to adopt sign ordinances.
Hensel, who spent part of her day Friday picketing against military drones outside nearby Camp Ripley, believes the complaints had more to do with the words on the signs than the aesthetics of a yard filled with signs, banners and flags.
"It is has because I had a differing view, and in Little Falls there's very little tolerance for anything different," Hensel said.
"I think we should build a peace monument or peace park in this city," noting that the U.S. Army has a large presence at the city's official celebrations because of the proximity to Camp Ripley.
Twin Cities attorney Larry Frost, a military veteran himself, is representing Hensel pro bono because of First Amendment issues involved.
"If a government entity moves to limit your freedom of speech, it must show a compelling reason," Frost told KARE. "The burden of proof is on the city to show that these signs create some kind of harm."
Bloomington attorney Jason Kouboushek, who is defending Little Falls in the federal case, said the city does not consider content of the signs when it investigates complaints from citizens.
"The city receives complaints from citizens, but ultimately when the city goes to look for sign violations they look for the size and number," Kouboushek said.
He said the signage limitations are part of the city's zoning regulations, and that any citizen can lodge a complaint about the size of a sign at a home or business.
"The purpose of those sign ordinances is for public safety, aesthetics and to protect the property values in the city," Kouboushek added.
Some of the neighbors contacted by KARE on Friday said they side with the city in the dispute.
"It's an eyesore," Janel Lepinski, who lives across the street from Hensel, told KARE. "I mean, she's got a right to her opinion and all that, but just place it somewhere else instead of your yard!"
Lepinski said her husband counted 42 signs in the yard last winter, and at the time they were more visible because the trees and shrubs that line the curb were leafless.
"I also think it's been a safety issue because some slow down to look at the signs, but others come up behind them driving fast," Lepinski added.
The federal court case is still in the pre-trial stages, and all local sign ordinances in Minnesota are temporarily superseded by state law that covers political yard signs. That law doesn't allow cities to apply size limits in the days between the primary and general elections.
One of the political yard signs in Hensel's yard promotes her campaign. She may be fighting city hall in court, but she's also running for city council in Little Falls.
(Copyright 2012 by KARE. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, redistributed or reiterated.)