A small town in Newton, Iowa, is now embroiled in a federal lawsuit for violating the civil rights of a young man who criticized the local police department during a City Council meeting.
The lawsuit, filed on Thursday in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Iowa, alleges violations of the First, Fourth, and 14th Amendments by the town of Newton.
The plaintiff, Noah Petersen, argues that the town infringed on his constitutional rights when he was arrested twice for expressing his grievances during the public comment period of a City Council meeting.
Represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm, Petersen seeks justice and the protection of his fundamental right to criticize the government without fear of retaliation.
According to the lawsuit, Petersen was motivated to speak during an October 3, 2022, Newton City Council meeting after releasing body camera footage that showed local officers arresting college football player Tayvin Galanakis.
Galanakis had been arrested for driving under the influence despite registering a 0.00 on a Breathalyzer and passing roadside sobriety tests. All subsequent drug tests conducted at the police station also returned negative results before Galanakis was eventually released.
Petersen boldly expressed his views during his public comments, stating, “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.”
However, Petersen’s remarks led to his removal from the meeting by the Newton mayor, who ordered the police chief to arrest him for violating a council rule prohibiting “derogatory statements or comments about any individual.”
Petersen was handcuffed, arrested, and detained until his parents could post bond.
Undeterred by his initial arrest, Petersen returned to a subsequent City Council meeting to exercise his right to free speech. He was again arrested after labeling the police chief and mayor as “fascists.”
Both arrests resulted in Petersen being charged with disorderly conduct for disrupting a lawful assembly.
However, a recent verdict in his favor found him not guilty of the disorderly conduct charges and overturned the rule prohibiting “derogatory” statements about individuals during city council meetings.
The judge ruled that the rule violated the First Amendment, stating that Petersen’s comments were not “derogatory” or aimed at an “individual.”
Petersen’s actions highlighted the need for police reform, as he stated in an Institute for Justice press release, “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.”
This incident is not the only example of Newton officials responding poorly to criticism. Two Newton police officers who arrested Galanakis have filed a defamation suit against him for releasing body camera footage and making claims about the officers on social media. Most of these defamation claims were dismissed by a judge.
The lawsuit filed by Petersen seeks compensatory and punitive damages and a judgment declaring Newton’s “derogatory comments” rule unconstitutional.
Institute for Justice attorney Brian Morris criticized the town’s officials, stating, “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.”
Attorneys representing the town of Newton have not yet responded to the lawsuit. The case has drawn significant attention and raises important questions about the protection of free speech and the accountability of government officials.