The Anoka City Council recently passed an ordinance that bans certain displays on city property, including chalk art, and now a coalition of groups supporting free speech rights is pushing back.
On Sunday, members of Communities United Against Police Brutality and six other organizations plan to rally on the steps of the Anoka City Hall with chalk in hand to educate citizens about their First Amendment rights and encourage the council to revisit its decision.
“The idea you can’t have free speech on government property is ludicrous,” said Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality, which is sponsoring the rally. “Where would you do it? Should we come to private property? That would be trespassing.”
The ordinance regulates flags, murals, memorials, banners and chalk art displayed on buildings, light posts, flagpoles, streets and sidewalks, parks and other city infrastructure. It’s designed to allow the city to protect and maintain aesthetics of city-owned property and remain politically neutral.
Under the ordinance, only items that illustrate “governmental expression of the city of Anoka” will be allowed. Displays, memorials or artwork commissioned or solicited and approved by the city and those that celebrate and portray Anoka in a positive fashion also are OK.
Britt Maki drew murals on the steps of City Hall last year after civil unrest broke out following the police killing of George Floyd. She created a mural in support of Floyd, portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mr. Rogers, and other images designed to bring peace and togetherness. Officers told her to leave, she said.
That is when discussions about chalk art and other forms of expression on city property started. The ban began after the City Council voted 4-1 on Nov. 1 to approve a change to Chapter 54 of city code.
The move saddens Maki.
“Chalk art has always been a safe and fun outlet for people, specifically children to express their feelings,” said Maki, who has hosted free rock painting and chalk drawing events in Anoka over the past couple of years. “This ban in the middle of a pandemic is, at best, thoughtless and needlessly callous.”
She said she hope Sunday’s rally will bring attention to the harm the new law has done to the community, especially young people. Maki said she hopes to attend.
At its passing, City Attorney Scott Baumgartner cited federal precedent that allows cities to regulate the use of chalk art on sidewalks.
But Gross disagrees.
“The First Amendment specifically recognizes the right of people to redress their grievances to the government, which naturally occurs on government property,” she wrote in a letter to the City Council last week.
Several calls and emails to the City seeking comment were not returned.
Organizers say Sunday’s event will be peaceful.
“Speech is a sacred right our founding fathers gave us,” said Johnathon McClellan of the Minnesota Justice Coalition, another group helping promote the event. “This is about the Constitution and protecting and preserving that right.”