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Restraining order dismissed; court finds it suppressed free speech rights

A Minnesota district court has dismissed a restraining order against two residents that would have prevented them from going into the clinic, courthouse and post office.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota said the restraining order was used improperly and suppressed Gordan Van Wert and Mary Kotowski's freedom of speech.

The restraining order against husband and wife Van Wert and Kotowski was filed by Tim Pearson in July.

Pearson, funeral director at Jones-Pearson Funeral Home, obtained an ex parte restraining order against the couple after they protested in front of his business over a personal disagreement.

The couple claimed Pearson failed to pay for crushed gravel taken from land owned by a trust in Kotowski's daughter's name, court documents say. They said he would not respond to phone calls seeking resolution.

So on June 28, the couple wore neon-yellow T-shirts that stated, "Mr. Pearson, you owe $7,800." They sat on the tailgate of a pickup truck outside the business but did not impede traffic or go into the business, according to court documents filed by the couple's attorney.

Pearson stated in documents requesting the restraining order that the couple were "causing me irreparable injury" by "scaring customers away."

Pearson said Kotowski's claims he took more gravel than paid for were false. He said he wished she would have brought that matter to a civil court, where he could prove it.

In August, Pearson agreed to the order's reduction down to a one-block area around his business, but he also sought to prevent the couple from "engaging in any disparaging conduct" toward him or his business for two years.

ACLU Minnesota attorneys argued Van Wert and Kowoski's protest and speech did not violate any laws.

"If Pearson believes respondents' speech is untrue, then he may pursue a civil action for defamation," wrote the couple's attorney, Tim Griffin in court documents.

Pearson said Friday he likely cannot afford to bring forward a civil suit such as defamation against the couple's actions, or he would consider it.

"We've earned a very solid good reputation in this town," Pearson said. "We're really honest people trying to make a living. We do pay all of our bills. We have an excellent, excellent credit rating."

At a Hubbard County District Court hearing Thursday, a judge dismissed the restraining order and barred Pearson from filing for anything similar based on the June protest.

"We hope that this will set an example to others who attempt to use Minnesota's harassment restraining order laws to silence constitutionally protected free speech," ACLU Minnesota attorney Teresa Nelson said in a news release.

Nelson and attorneys representing Van Wert and Kotowski did not return messages seeking comment Friday.