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Woodbury looks to ban protests in residential areas

The right to exercise free speech versus a right to privacy in one's own home.

That's the discussion Woodbury city officials took up last week as the city plans to move forward with creation of a new ordinance that would restrict picketing in residential neighborhoods.

The proposed ordinance, drafted with input from city attorney Mark Vierling and Woodbury Public Safety officials, is motivated by a series of about a half-dozen incidents that took place in Woodbury neighborhoods last year.

All of the incidents involved members of an animal rights group who were protesting in front of the homes of 3M executives.

The city council discussed the ordinance at a Feb. 18 workshop and gave an informal endorsement to move forward.

The ordinance is expected to come to the council for official approval in March.

After the incidents began last May the city was able to gather information on the protesters with the help of 3M security personnel, who indicated the protesters were affiliated with the animal activist group SHAC.

The group "Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty" (SHAC) is an organization that, according to its website, protests the actions of Huntingdon Life Sciences, an England-based contract research company.

Its website claims that members also protest any clients of Huntingdon Life Sciences.

Police were called to each incident, often by neighbors of the targeted home.

Woodbury police Capt. Jay Alberio said the protesters, about eight to 10 in number, often refused to divulge information about who they were or why they were picketing in front of the designated homes.

After each incident the group had posted information about the protest on their website. The group has an online record that states it protested outside the home of a 3M executive on May 20 and said it plans to continue to do so "until 3M issues a statement saying they stopped using HLS."

Alberio said that with each incident residents reported to police that the picketers were very loud and disruptive to the neighborhood, often yelling, chanting and marching to the point that they were disturbing the peace.

"We just wanted to make sure they were remaining peaceful, and they usually quieted down right away and left if the officer stayed," Alberio said.

Striking a balance

The city does have an existing nuisance/harassment ordinance that prohibits behavior which, "annoys, injures or endangers the health, safety, comfort or repose of the public." But city officials acknowledged that application of such an ordinance in a situation involving protesters claiming free speech, would likely be challenged in court.

Public safety officials then began researching what avenues of enforcement could be taken to protect residential privacy, the well being and tranquility of the home, and protect citizens from unwanted speech when they are a captive audience within their homes," Alberio wrote in a report to the city council.

What resulted is a draft ordinance that is similar to ordinances in other east metro cities such as White Bear Lake and Maplewood, which have been reviewed and determined to be constitutional, said city attorney Vierling.

"(The proposed ordinance) is patterned under the obligation (that a protester) can do what they want when they want, but they cannot violate the rights of an individual to have peace and security in the privacy of their own home," Vierling said.. "They have the right to privacy in their own home and enjoy that privacy. They should not be a captive audience to other parties."

A similar ordinance in White Bear Lake was challenged in court, but state appeals court upheld the ordinance citing its constitutionality per a similar case that was deemed constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The goal of enforcing the ordinance, if approved, is not to restrict the rights of free speech, but to provide a healthy balance for protesters and invaded citizen's right to privacy in their own home, said Woodbury Public Safety Director Lee Vague.

"We're happy to work with any group that comes to our city and wants to exercise their right to free speech," Vague said. "But we want to make sure they are not trying to make someone a captive audience in their own home. That's when the intent becomes to harass someone."

Vague said he views the proposed ordinance as a mediating tool between two groups of individuals.

"It really doesn't matter what the message is," Vague said, "or what they are protesting. We'd actually be happy to help them exercise their rights to free speech, but we are recognizing that there are plenty of places to do that in our community besides disrupting a neighborhood and harassing individuals in their own home."