Students take issue with harassment law

by Joel Sawyer

ittle did members of the Student Organization for Animal Rights know that their protest of a deer hunt in 1994 would spawn a battle pitting the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech against a Minnesota harassment statute.
In November 1994, a group of SOAR members from the University and Macalester College in St. Paul protested a special deer hunt that took place in Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve in Scott County, Minn.
“We talked (to the hunters) about our beliefs that hunting isn’t an ethical way to enjoy the outdoors,” said Jesse Miner, a SOAR member and former Macalester College student.
He said SOAR’s belief is that “appreciation of the outdoors should not involve murder.”
The students were arrested for trespassing because they were in the nature reserve without a hunting permit. Those charges were later dropped but after a jury trial in March 1996, the students were convicted of violating Minnesota’s Hunter Harassment Law.
The convictions carry a $400 fine, or a jail term of up to 90 days.
The law, which was enacted in 1989, prohibits a person “who has intent to prevent, disrupt, or dissuade the taking of a wild animal or enjoy(ing) the outdoors” from “disturb(ing) … another person who is lawfully taking a wild animal.”
Miner and former University student Renee Gardner are attempting to overturn the decision. They claim the harassment law is unconstitutional and violates the First Amendment’s right of free speech.
Shortly after their conviction, Miner and Gardner appealed their case and found some support in the process. In May, the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union filed a brief with the Minnesota Court of Appeals stating that the Minnesota Hunter Harassment Law restricts free speech.
“Anytime we learn about a law that could criminalize speech activity we’re going to be interested in it,” said Kathleen Milner, a lawyer for the union.
“We claim,” Milner said, “that the hunter harassment statute is unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds. It’s overly broad. It reaches not only unprotected conduct but protected speech.”
The civil liberties union states in its brief that the harassment law has two flaws. It contends that the law is overbroad. The law prohibits interfering with hunters who are “preparing to take a wild animal.”
But this phrase is defined loosely to include travel, camping and other preparations prior to hunting.
Secondly, the brief says the law is a content-based restriction on free speech because it only criminalizes speech that attempts to dissuade hunters from killing an animal.
Milner said that as the law is written it could be applied to a prayer vigil held at a campground days in advance of an actual hunt.
Oral arguments in Miner and Gardner’s appeal were heard by the Minnesota Appeals Court in September and a decision is expected sometime this month.
Milner said there are several potential outcomes to the case. The law could be declared unconstitutional, verified, or narrowed in scope.
“Having a statute overturned is unusual,” Milner said. The civil liberties union hopes, at the least, to have the law narrowed, she said.
More than 30 states have similar laws on the books protecting the rights of hunters. Several states, including Montana and Wisconsin, have had their laws narrowed after similar court cases.
For Miner, the most important thing has been standing up for what he believes.
“The issue isn’t getting me off the hook,” he said, “it’s an issue of getting this law off the books.”
“I stood up for something that I strongly believe in, and I took a stand. And I questioned something I believed to be wrong in government, and I think every citizen should do that — it’s something to be proud of,” Miner said.