Officials in a small Iowa town twice arrested a young man for criticizing the police department and saying it violates people’s civil rights. Now the town is facing a lawsuit for violating his civil rights.
In a federal lawsuit filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Iowa, Noah Petersen says the town of Newton violated the First, Fourth, and 14th Amendments when the police chief arrested him for speaking during the public comment period of a City Council meeting. Petersen is represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm.
“The mayor and police chief had Noah arrested, jailed, strip-searched, and criminally prosecuted simply because they didn’t like what Noah had to say,” the lawsuit states. “This suit is filed to vindicate the fundamental right to criticize the government without fear of retaliation and to ensure the constitutional accountability of all government officials.”
Petersen was prompted to speak at an October 3, 2022, Newton City Council meeting after the release of body cam footage showing Newton officers arresting a college football player, Tayvin Galanakis. Galanakis was arrested for driving under the influence, despite blowing a 0.00 on a Breathalyzer and passing roadside sobriety tests. He was taken to the police station for further drug tests, all of which came back negative, before eventually being released.
Petersen approached the microphone and said:
Hello. This is my public comment for [the] City Council meeting, now October 3rd, 2022. Defund Newton Police Department. They are a violent, civil and human rights–violating organization who do not make your community safer. They are also pro–domestic abuse because they are currently employing a domestic abuser and choosing to not release the records about that domestic abuser.
At that point, the Newton mayor ordered Petersen to stop speaking, although his allotted three minutes of time had not expired. When Petersen refused, the mayor ordered the police chief to remove Petersen for violating a council rule forbidding “derogatory statements or comments about any individual.”
Petersen was handcuffed, arrested, and jailed until his parents could post bond for him. He returned to the next City Council meeting to speak during the public comment period and was once again arrested after calling the police chief and mayor fascists.
Petersen was charged both times with disorderly conduct for disrupting a lawful assembly. However, as Reason’s Emma Camp reported in February, those charges did not stick:
Last Wednesday, Petersen was found not guilty of his disorderly conduct charge. Adding to his victory, the judge overturned the rule barring “derogatory” statements about individuals during city council meetings. “As applied in this particular instance, the Newton City Council rule is violative of the First Amendment,” the verdict states.
Petersen “did not act in any objectively unreasonable manner,” the judge added. “He read a prepared statement relating to the basic city service of policing. While some may not agree with the content of his comments, the Court finds the statements made were not ‘derogatory,’ nor about an ‘individual.’ In the event the statements could be found ‘derogatory’ or a comment about an ‘individual’…the Court finds these terms vague and overbroad.”
Petersen says the entire mess shows why he stepped up to the podium in the first place.
“Ironically, the actions of the police department have only proven my point,” Petersen said in an Institute for Justice press release. “My initial criticism was about the way they treat citizens in our community. They arrested me for exercising my right to free speech—for standing up for what I believe is right. Their reaction to my criticism was a clear demonstration of the very issue I was trying to highlight. Their actions underscore the urgent need for the very reforms I was advocating for.”
Newton officials simply do not appear to take criticism well. As Reason’s Emma Camp reported earlier this month, the two Newton police officers who arrested Galanakis have since filed a defamation suit against him for publishing the body cam footage of his own arrest, as well as claims he made about the officers on social media. A judge tossed out most of those defamation claims.
The right to criticize police, even through vulgarities and rude gestures, is firmly enshrined in the First Amendment. As Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote in 1987, in a ruling striking down a Houston ordinance that made it unlawful to oppose or interrupt a police officer, “The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.”
Peterson’s lawsuit is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, as well as a judgment declaring Newton’s “derogatory comments” rule unconstitutional.
“By ordering their opponents arrested, Newton’s officials behaved like petty dictators in a banana republic, rather than democratically-elected leaders in a constitutional republic,” Institute for Justice attorney Brian Morris said. “Anyone with a high school diploma should know that having your political opponents arrested is a textbook example of violating someone’s First Amendment rights and we’re confident that the courts will agree.”
Attorneys for the town of Newton did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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