MN Capitol panel reluctant to tighten protest rules

- Minnesota government leaders hesitated Tuesday to tighten rules against Capitol protests that don't have permits even though some recent demonstrations have turned into heated confrontations.

Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, who chairs a Capitol security committee that examined the issue, said the State Patrol, which provides security in the Capitol complex, has managed these situations well on a case-by-case basis.

"The First Amendment doesn't say ... 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."

The current permitting process exists to allow groups to reserve space on the Capitol grounds and give security an idea of the anticipated turnout, Minnesota Public Radio reported . But some rallies have drawn opponents who have sought to disrupt or counter the main event.

Eight people were charged after a permitted March rally in support of President Donald Trump drew counter-protesters. Clashes erupted between the factions. One person pleaded guilty for using tear gas and violent force inside the Capitol. He will be sentenced next month.

State Patrol Capt. Eric Roeske, who briefed the panel on several notable demonstrations this year, said standard practice isn't to expel people involved in spontaneous events as long as they don't unreasonably disrupt a permitted event or government proceedings.

The panel declined to put forward any changes Tuesday. Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, floated the idea of creating a designated protest space but said he wasn't sure where to put it or how to enforce it.

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 it makes recommendations to the Legislature.

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