Minnesota government leaders expressed reluctance Tuesday about devising new rules around unpermitted Capitol protests because the demonstrations are an exercise of free speech, despite some this spring that escalated into violent confrontations that forced the State Patrol to muster extra troopers to contain.
The Advisory Committee on Capitol Security, which includes representatives of all three branches of government, discussed whether the complex is adequately staffed to handle such events and if any policies need revisiting to minimize disruptions to meetings or permitted assemblies. The panel declined to put forward any changes, though at least one member raised the idea of cordoning off defined spaces for protests.
The Department of Administration's current permitting process exists to allow groups to reserve space on the Capitol grounds and give security an idea of the anticipated turnout. But some planned rallies have drawn crowds seeking to disrupt or counter the main event.
Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, a DFLer who chairs the committee, said she's not concerned about the number or nature of recent protests. She said the State Patrol has been able to manage the events on a case-by-case basis. She said decisions about security being made "in the moment" are preferable to a new policy that must be applied in all situations.
"The First Amendment doesn't say that you can protest, you can exercise your First Amendment rights if you have a permit. It says you can exercise your First Amendment Rights," Smith said. "We've done a good job of living up to that standard."
State Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said the "angst and anger" coloring protests are concerning. He has floated the idea of creating a designated protest space but said he isn't sure where that would be or how to enforce it.
"If a secondary group of people to counter-demonstrate would spontaneously appear to protest one that has permits to be at a certain location and that's allowed as long they're not interfering with the freedom of speech of the first group, why have a permit in the first place?" Limmer asked State Patrol Capt. Eric Roeske, who provided a briefing to the panel on notable demonstrations this year.
Roeske said the practice isn't to expel people involved in spontaneous events as long as they don't unreasonably disrupt a permitted event or government proceedings.
"We just try to do the best we can to try to keep the group that has the permit that they can have their space and do their thing," he said. "Then if another group shows up we try to establish some kind of boundaries or expectations ... so that they can exercise their First Amendment rights and the people with the permit and reserved space can continue with their event."
Eight people were charged after a permitted March rally in support of President Donald Trump drew counter-protesters who set off clashes between the factions. One of those charged entered a guilty plea for using tear gas and violent force inside the Capitol; he will be sentenced next month. Another charged with similar felony offenses has yet to appear in court. The rest were charged with misdemeanor offenses.
Later in the year, immigrant rights advocates occupied the governor's office for a few days to protest a measure to restrict driver's licenses for people living in Minnesota without authorization. There was also a large gathering the day of the verdict acquitting a police officer in the shooting death of motorist Philando Castile.
"A lot of the people that come here they want to say what they want to say and when we tell them 'that's enough' they comply," Roeske said. "That's what this place is for and that's what we're here to facilitate."
The discussion is expected to continue at the committee's next meeting when members get an update on security staffing levels. The committee doesn't make binding decisions but instead forwards recommendations to the Legislature.