Meetings such as one recently called by Havre resident Bob Sivertsen, advocating a boycott of Hutterite businesses, should not be allowed on county property. That’s the opinion of Hill County Attorney Karen Alley, written at the county commissioners’ request.
Sivertsen wanted to have the meeting at the Great Northern Fairgrounds in mid-June, but when some local residents objected, the county rescinded its approval until Alley could research the matter.
Eventually, on June 21, Sivertsen held a meeting at the Havre Quality Inn. The former state legislator is leading a campaign to boycott Hi-Line Hutterite communities because he believes their “socialist system” unfairly competes with area farmers.
“The public should have the right to use our facilities for public meetings,” Alley wrote in the opinion to county commissioners. However, “where the purpose of a meeting is political and potentially discriminatory against a protected class, the county should not allow such meetings on county property.”
Sivertsen asked permission to use the 4-H-owned Chuckwagon at the county-owned Great Northern Fairgrounds. He paid for insurance, as is required by 4-H policy.
But county officials began getting complaints and Sivertsen was told the approval was rescinded. He then asked to use the Timmons Room in the lower floor of the Hill County Courthouse. Again, he was denied use pending Alley’s legal opinion.
County Commission Chairman Mark Peterson said he will rely upon Alley’s recommendation if Sivertsen asks to use county property again.
Sivertsen said his First Amendment rights to free speech and peaceable assembly are being denied.
“They’re being politically correct,” he said.
Alley doesn’t agree.
“To begin with, pursuant to (Montana law), the county commissioners have authority to manage county property and make rules and regulations in connection within that authority,” the county attorney wrote.
Case law indicates there are several questions that must be asked, including whether the courthouse or county building can be used as a forum for political debate.
If there are limits on the speech, she said, questions that have to be answered include “is the government’s speech restriction narrowly tailored to meet a compelling state interest” and “is the government’s restriction on speech reasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum and viewpoint neutral.”
Even though the courthouse is publicly owned, the courthouse could be classified as a non-public forum, Alley wrote. That would differentiate it from a street or park, where greater leeway would have to be offered to dissenting views.
“Additionally, the meeting that has been proposed by Mr. Sivertsen could be perceived as potentially discriminatory, since it is directed at people with a common national origin,” she wrote.
She quoted the Montana Human Rights Act: “A state or local facility may not be used in the furtherance of any discriminatory practice, nor may a state agency become a party to an agreement, arrangement, or plan that has the effect of sanctioning discriminatory practices.”
Still, Sivertsen said his rights are being discriminated against.
“Where, might I ask, is the Right of Assembly and Freedom of Speech???” Sivertsen wrote in an email to the Havre Herald.
“If this opinion holds, Hill Co. will have established a new precedent, as Public Meetings have been held on Co. property for decades.”
Sivertsen strongly denies any racial or religious bias against the Hutterites, saying he only opposes the economic system under which they operate.
He said he would like to see Hutterites assimilate into the general population. He said the strong work ethic Hutterites are taught from birth would be of value to them in any occupation, be it agriculture or anything else.
“I love the Hutterite people,” he said.
But most Hutterite communities operate under what Sivertsen calls a “socialist” system. Every member works and the money is pooled into one account operated by the colony. The colonies have amassed such wealth they can outbid everyone else when a farm is placed on the market, he said.
He said the way things are going, he’s afraid someday the Hutterites will own everything from Havre to the Canadian line.
He wants to boycott Hutterite products at supermarkets and farmers markets.
He said he would consider his next step in light of the county attorney’s opinion.
“I will explore my options,” Sivertsen wrote to the Herald. “I will keep you posted.”
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