Local gadfly sues Minneapolis council member
The continuing saga of Flowers v. Samuels
Word came from attorney Jill Clark yesterday that she was filing a couple of different federal lawsuits involving the city of Minneapolis. Clark is a longtime critic of the MPD, so it's not surprising that one involved police misconduct. But the other involved Alfred Flowers, a community activist who has had more than his share of run-ins with the cops.
Here's the text of the press release announcing a press conference this morning:
Alfred Flowers hosted a television show on Minneapolis
Television Network (MTN). He engaged in political
speech, criticizing Minneapolis City Politicians, including Council Member Don Samuels. Political speech is protected by the First Amendment.
Flowers [filed] a complaint in U.S. District
Court alleging that Samuels and others worked to get
him off the air, and that Samuels misused the criminal
justice system by filing a false police report against him.
Technical legalities aside, there's reason to believe that the suit may not be outside the spirit of the law.
The backstory, in a nutshell, goes something like this. Earlier this year, in the spring, Flowers and his cable-access co-host, Booker Hodges, were talking about the white-power structure that persists in Minneapolis city politics. The two, who are both black, starting using plantation-era rhetoric, referring to City Hall as the Big House and taking issue with a defense Samuels had made of the "Big House" that his ancestors, "mulatto slaves," apparently had lived in at one point.
During the taped showing of "The Real State of the City," the talk became centered around the idea that it was time to "kill a house Negro" and, according to a transcript I saw, "kill the house-Negro mentality." (Attorney Clark says that her client, Flowers, never uttered either phrase.)
Samuels took this as a threat to him personally.
At the DFL convention in May, Flowers was barred from the gymnasium at Augsburg College. I heard the DFL's sergeant-at-arms rush to an Augsburg security guard and tell him that someone had requested that Flowers be escorted from the premises. The sergeant-at-arms was vague on who had made the request, but it was clear that it had come from some prominent members of the party. (Later accounts marked it as coming from "staff" for Samuels and Mayor R.T. Rybak.)
At the time, Flowers hadn't even made it inside to the gymnasium. He had made it to the hallway, however, where he had a press credential yanked from his neck. At that point, with some encouragement, Flowers decided to head home.
Not long after, Flowers and Hodges were meeting with higher-ups at MTN about the future of the program. According to some accounts and MTN board members, Samuels, Rybak and city communications director Gail Plewacki put the pressure on to have the show dropped. The show was taken off the air for three weeks.
Samuels also filed a criminal complaint agains Hodges and Flowers, which the St. Paul city attorney's office dismissed.
The question remains, though, regarding this lawsuit: Do city leaders have a right to control what gets aired on MTN? In June 2004, I wrote a story in City Page detailing the city's desire to move MTN within the confines of City Hall. The reason was ostensibly to reduce procduction costs, according to Plewacki, but many saw it as part of a "coordinating of communications" emanating from the mayor's office. The effect was, detractors believe, to quash whatever (negative) free speech might crop up on programming.
Despite contentions from Plewacki and Rybak that they had no intention of controlling programming on MTN, the Samuels-Flowers snafu--and the decision to take Flowers and Hodges off the air, whoever made that call--certainly calls to mind a certain kind meddling, if not censorship. And there's little doubt that Samuels, as an elected official, had a role in it.
"Flowers decided that he had to file the civil lawsuit now, as he believes his right to comment freely on candidates for political office is being hampered during this critical period--the campaign," writes attorney Clark in an email. "Further, he is concerned that continuing conduct of Don Samuels might result in another unwarranted call to police, and frankly, Flowers fears police."
The fact that Flowers was suspended from MTN at all lends creedence to the lawsuit. All that aside, the notion that city leaders would be so inclined to impose limits on free speech, if nothing else, should give one pause.