in which disagreement equals handcuffs
A 22 year-old Iowa resident named Noah Petersen was arrested this week at a meeting of the Newton City Council after sharply criticizing the town’s police department and refusing to be silent when the mayor told him to stop. You can read a local news story here, or see full video here. Here’s a TV news report that gets in most of the important action:
“You are out of order, sir,” and, “Chief, escort this gentleman from the chambers.” Because he criticized the city government. I find the interrupted comment lumpy and cartoonish — more about this in a moment — but it doesn’t matter: The First Amendment protects dumb speech, too.
The city’s rules for public comment (see Item #4) prohibit “derogatory statements or comments about any individual.” From the City of Newton’s website, here’s the police department’s Idiocracy-quality press release on the arrest:
Note the absence of a description of the “manner that was deemed to be in violation of the stated rules for citizen participation.” Watch the video, because the manner in which Petersen was speaking was unremarkable. The mayor’s objection, and the thing that led to the arrest, was unmistakably the content of his comments. He criticized government, so government silenced him.
I’ve emailed the local prosecutor’s office to see if they’ll be taking the case to court, but I haven’t heard back yet. But the arrest has captured a great deal of attention, and is likely to be contested. From a conservative public interest legal non-profit in Iowa:
From what I could tell, he didn’t violate the rules with his comments. But even so, the rules are clearly unconstitutional. The government can’t ban criticism of individuals but allow praise, and that’s what the rules do.
The arrest was clearly inappropriate. It appeared to me that Mr. Petersen simply wanted the three minutes of speaking time he was entitled to and would have left when he was finished.
The city ought to apologize, invite him back to speak his comments, and amend the rules to comply with the First Amendment.
Spoiler alert: The city will not apologize and invite him back, or amend the rules without a fight.
I also sent Simon Campbell the video….
.…because Campbell was recently one of the successful plaintiffs who went to court to challenge a remarkably similar school board policy — and a remarkably similar silencing of public comment — in Pennsylvania. His full response, which I agree with entirely: “Ugh!”
Finally, while Noah Petersen’s public comment was hyperbolic, he argued that the Newton Police Department is abusive — and so the mayor silenced him, and the police chief arrested him, for offering First Amendment-protected speech at a public meeting. That’s…not a refutation?
It’s another behavior that never stops even though it never works. Silencing public comment and arresting critics are choices that end in lawsuits and the Streisand Effect, but local governments just keep doing it. They’ll keep doing it until the courts consistently limit qualified immunity for government officials who egregiously violate the First Amendment rights of citizens.