Albert Lea, Minn. — The focus of the lawsuit is a rule passed by the Freeborn County Board. Rule 19, as it's called, was written for one man. Roger Bok is a self-described county watchdog. He uses the public comment time during county board meetings to air his complaints about the county.
County Administrator Ronald Gabrielsen says Bok's frequent comments during board meetings were a nuisance. "You say 'out of order.' Now the individual keeps on speaking. You say 'out of order.' Now the individual keeps on speaking. You say 'out of order.' How many times do you have to say 'out of order' before the person is asked to leave the room?" asks Gabrielsen.
Rule 19 did just that. It banned Roger Bok and it could ban others from speaking at county board meetings. It's not Roger Bok who's suing the county. It's the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union. The MCLU says the rule violates the guarantee to freedom of speech.
Rule 19 gives county board members the power to ban public comments they define as inappropriate. That can include comments that are personal, offensive, quarrelsome, challenging, or boisterous remarks tending to alarm or arouse anger in others. It also bars the public from speaking more than two times about a single topic before the board during a calendar year.
But according to County Administrator Gabrielsen, Freeborn County's citizen's have rights other county's citizens don't have.
"We're one of the few counties that allow people to go before the board. Most of them don't have an open forum. They say its not required by law. this is above and beyond the basic statutes," says Gabrielsen.
Gabrielsen says rule 19 has brought more order to Freeborn County Board meetings. But according to Albert Lea resident Jim Hanson, the rule gives too much power to elected officials. Hanson is one of the four plaintiffs challenging the county on rule 19. He's never been banned at speaking at a county board meeting. But, he says, the Freeborn County Board already has too much power over its citizens.
"You can make a request for them, they don't acknowledge it, they don't look at you, they don't comment on it, they're completely unresponsive to it. They may or may not look into it at their pleasure," says Hanson.
Hanson says many Freeborn residents don't trust the county board. He says one example was the decision last year to build a new courthouse. Hanson says it was a controversial project for a county with one of the weakest economies in the state.
He points to the popularity of an Internet chat room set up by the Albert Lea Tribune that allows citizens to air concerns about the county. The site has received thousands of hits. To explain what he wants from county government, Hanson describes one of his favorite paintings, Norman Rockwell's Town Meeting.
"A common man, a laborer or a farmer, obviously not a professional politician, stands up from amongst his peers and addresses the county board or whatever the deliberative board is," Hanson says. "Looking that at that, that should be our model; that painting should hang in front of every deliberative board in the country, I think. I grew up in a Norman Rockwell America, and it was not that long. How did we lose it? How is it that we've lost it?"
Hanson and the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union have filed the complaint in the federal district court in Minneapolis. Freeborn County has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit.