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Willmar man charged in anti-Muslim incident invokes right to free speech

WILLMAR — The actions may have been offensive, but a Willmar man argues he should not face prosecution for leaving a pig's foot at a Somali booth at a farmers market this past summer.

The attorney for Joseph Fernkes is challenging the constitutionality of the disorderly conduct charge filed against him, saying Fernkes was exercising his right to free speech.

At a brief hearing Tuesday before Judge Michael Thompson in Kandiyohi County District Court, the state was given until Oct. 31 to file a response to a motion for dismissal of the case.

Fernkes, 61, received a disorderly conduct citation in the wake of the Aug. 12 incident at the Willmar Farmers Market located in the YMCA parking lot. He allegedly drove up in his wheelchair to a Somali-staffed vendor booth, placed a pickled pig's foot on the table and then drove away while directing an obscene gesture at the vendors.

Witnesses said in separate interviews that he also cursed and used anti-Muslim slurs. Some accounts maintain the pig's foot was thrown, not placed. The vendor booth sold vegetables raised by a Willmar gardening program for minority youths.

The citation issued against Fernkes is a misdemeanor. Willmar Police Department officers tracked him down at his home after talking to witnesses and reviewing photos taken at the scene.

The case quickly drew statewide attention. Within days, the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called for hate crime charges.

Fernkes appeared with his attorney in court Tuesday but did not speak. He did not use a wheelchair in the courtroom.

In a memorandum filed Tuesday, attorney John Mack acknowledged that his client meant to offend Muslims, whose religious beliefs forbid the consumption of pork.

But it's unconstitutional to charge him for exercising freedom of speech, the memorandum argues.

"... The conduct, while perhaps reprehensible, represents protected speech under the First Amendment," Mack wrote.

The memorandum also challenges the basis for alleging that Fernkes engaged in disorderly conduct, saying he neither caused a disturbance nor threatened anyone.

Fernkes has said in interviews that he's frustrated with Willmar's Somali population. He told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis they were "taking over the whole damn town" and that there are "so many people who dislike them but won't speak up."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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