Citing First Amendment Rights, Judge Lifts Iowa Ban on Protesters

The Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines. (Courthouse News photo/Rox Laird)

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction Thursday barring the state of Iowa from banning 17 protesters from setting foot on the Iowa Capitol grounds for up to a year following this summer’s protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The case will proceed in the meantime.

U.S. District Judge Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger issued a 23-page order Thursday that law enforcement officials cannot enforce oral and written bans that prohibit the five plaintiffs who sued the state after they were ordered not to enter the Iowa Capitol complex grounds following a protest that turned violent and led to several arrests.

Judge Goodgame Ebinger wrote that the plaintiffs demonstrated a likelihood of success on their claims that the bans violate their right to exercise their First Amendment rights in a traditional public forum.

“The bans here preclude all First Amendment conduct in the Capitol and on the Capitol complex grounds” she wrote. “The bans not only limit plaintiffs’ manner of demonstrating but also affect plaintiffs’ ability to engage in any form of demonstration — indeed any expression at all — at the Capitol and on the capitol complex grounds. Even with the state’s substantial interest in public safety, the lack of narrow tailoring likely dooms the bans.”

Still, in weighing the public interest in an injunction, the judge wrote:

“The public also has a significant interest in peaceful assembly, the safety of protestors, and the safety of law enforcement officers. The court recognizes the public interest in protecting the right to freedom of expression. But in doing so, the court does not disregard the substantial public interest in maintaining a safe environment at the Iowa Capitol complex. 

“This order should not be read as providing this court’s imprimatur on the violent and assaultive conduct depicted in defendants’ video exhibits. Further, this order does not in any way diminish the Iowa State Patrol’s authority and responsibility to continue enforcing the laws of the State of Iowa in the Capitol and on the Capitol complex grounds.”

ACLU-Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen said in a statement issued Thursday, “The Capitol complex is a uniquely important place for Iowans to exercise their free speech, which today’s order recognizes. We are grateful to the court and relieved that our clients will be able to engage in their right to nonviolent speech and assembly at their state Capitol once again while we move ahead in this litigation.”

A spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General’s office declined to comment Thursday.

The Capitol grounds ban was instigated by leaders of the Iowa General Assembly following protests near the Iowa Capitol in July following the arrest of several protesters for allegedly assaulting Des Moines police officers. The legislative leaders told Iowa State Patrol officers, who provide Capitol security, to ban individuals believed to have been involved in violent acts.

Protesters received letters from the Department of Public Safety warning them that “any continued and future presence on or about the” Capitol grounds “will not be welcome or tolerated.” The bans ranged from six months to one year. And the letters went on to say, “Be advised that your entry upon any portion of the property after receiving this notice will constitute trespass, a criminal offense.”

Five of those barred from the Capitol grounds — Jalesha Johnson, Louise Bequeaith, Brad Penna, Brandi Ramus and Haley Jo Dikkers — sued the state in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa for violation of their constitutional rights, including their rights of speech and peaceful assembly and their right to petition their state government for redress of grievances. The plaintiffs are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.

The plaintiffs’ complaint points out that the Iowa Capitol complex is a huge area taking up approximately 24 city blocks, and includes the Iowa Capitol itself, where the Iowa governor’s office, Legislature, and other state executive offices are located; the Iowa Judicial Branch Building; State Historical Building; and numerous other state buildings; museums; and paved exterior areas purposely designed to “accommodate the assembly of the citizenry to petition the state government.”

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