Des Moines, Iowa — A group of five protesters who have been banned from the Iowa Capitol Complex have filed a lawsuit because the ban blocks their fundamental constitutional rights, including those of free speech, assembly, and their right to petition their government.
Jalesha Johnson, Louise Bequeaith, Haley Jo Dikkers, Brad Penna, and Brandi Ramus are among a group of 17 supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement who have been banished by the Iowa State Patrol from the State of Iowa Capitol and the Iowa Capitol Complex grounds for either 6 months or 1 year.
All were arrested on July 1 when Des Moines BLM organized a daytime protest outside the Iowa State Capitol to urge ending lifetime disfranchisement of Iowans with felony convictions. As was the case with an earlier daytime protest at the Capitol, clergy and families with children attended. Protesters did not expect to be confronted by local or state police.
However, Des Moines Police Department officers arrived at the protest with warrants to arrest individuals they suspected of damaging a police vehicle several days before at a Hy-Vee store. Police gave no explanation of what they were doing and started pulling individuals out of the crowd of peaceful protestors. Given the recent experiences protesters had with Des Moines police using force on nonviolent protesters, including the indiscriminate use of tear gas and pepper spray into crowds, this caused the crowd to become alarmed and confused. In the chaos, Des Moines police arrested more than 17 protesters, including the five people now filing this lawsuit—a number beyond those they arrested in connection with the Hy-Vee police car incident.
After their arrests, all of the 17 protestors were told by Iowa State Patrol officers, who were also present, that they were banned for 6 months or 1 year from the Capitol Complex. Others later also received a letter, banning them for 6 months. All were told they would be arrested for criminal trespass if they were found present on the premises of the Iowa Capitol Complex.
The Capitol Complex is approximately 24 city blocks and includes many "traditional public forums"—places like the West Capitol Terrace, outdoor green spaces, sidewalks, streets, paths, and areas around public monuments.
"These are places where free speech rights are at their zenith because they are traditionally used to exercise free speech rights," said Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa Legal Director. "There is perhaps no more important traditional public forum in Iowa than the State Capitol, which is a place intentionally designed for Iowans to gather and speak to an audience of leaders from all three branches of state government. The ban means the protestors are unable to participate in demonstrations organized by BLM or other groups on the grounds. The ban also prevents the protesters who were banned from communicating directly with legislators and the Governor’s office at the Capitol, including during the upcoming legislative session for those who were banned for one year."
Right to Free Speech Challenged
"We are challenging Iowa State Patrol's stunning misuse of power to try to keep these Iowans from exercising their protected free speech rights to call for urgent reform to policing," said Bettis Austen.
"You can't block people's right to protest simply because you don't like them or think they've behaved in a way you disagree with, or even if they've been arrested during a prior protest. Law enforcement in this case is instituting a prior restraint on these activists' future First Amendment expression. That violates their fundamental constitutional rights, including the right of people to free speech and to peaceably assemble," Bettis Austen said. "We are also challenging the bans as a violation of our clients’ fundamental freedom of movement, and due process."
Bans Not Based in Any Law
There is absolutely no statutory authority for such a ban. Iowa Code section 716.8(1), cited by Iowa State Patrol as the Iowa law that authorizes the ban in the letter some received, merely sets out the penalty imposed on a person who "knowingly trespasses upon the property of another" as a simple misdemeanor punishable with a fine, and allowing officers to arrest the person so charged.
Bettis Austen said, "There is no authority for the Iowa State Patrol to ban Iowans from the State Capitol for six months or one year like this. This is a rare example of an unconstitutional prior restraint on the plaintiffs’ exercise of their core First Amendment rights and freedoms. The Constitution doesn’t tolerate prior restraints except in the most extreme situations, like an immediate threat to national security. Even then, they are treated with extreme suspicion by the courts. But there is absolutely no authority to ban future protests of citizens at their state capitol based on alleged behavior at past protests."
"So while the legitimacy of the criminal charges against the protesters is in many cases highly suspect, those will have to be resolved through the criminal process. But the fact that the protesters were arrested is legally irrelevant to try to justify these bans under the First Amendment," Bettis Austen said.
"We also believe these bans are retaliatory based on disagreement with the message of Des Moines BLM. Retaliation based on disagreement with a speaker’s message violates the First Amendment. We know of no other group who have been treated this way by Iowa State Patrol and specifically told they were prohibited from the public spaces at the State Capitol and surrounding grounds for six months or a year like the plaintiffs were. We believe this was unprecedented," Bettis Austen said.
Five Protesters Filing Suit
The individuals filing the lawsuit are:
Jalesha Johnson, Des Moines, is a student at Drake University earning her degree in secondary education, and works at Run DSM, a Des Moines Public Schools creative arts program. She is also the culture director and organizer for Des Moines BLM, in which role she helps plan events for the group. She received a one-year verbal ban.
"As a young person, as a Black person, as a woman, in professional spaces, our voices are not heard. We’re not asked to the table. The Capitol protests were a way to ensure we were at the table when these decisions were being made that impact the city we pay taxes in, we work in, we live in," Jalesha said.
"Legislators and the Governor can ignore our calls. They can ignore our emails. We can’t sit face to face with them. Now, they’ve taken away the best way we had available to be heard by an audience of legislators and the Governor. How are we supposed to be heard now?"
Louise Bequeaith was born and raised in Des Moines and now attends college in St. Paul, Minnesota. She received a 1-year verbal ban.
"The Capitol was a place where it felt like our voices were being heard. It felt like our actions were being taken seriously. Up until then, it felt like a lot of leaders in Iowa weren’t taking us seriously and it felt like they didn’t care about the problems we were fighting for," Louise said.
"After a few weeks of the George Floyd rebellion, it felt like things were dying out. At the Capitol, a small group of people could make a big, nonviolent, disruptive scene.
"The Capitol is the center of a lot of power. That is where a lot of decisions that affect change are made. It’s a place where people are told to meet with their representatives. But with these bans, we’ve been told if we’re fighting for Black lives, they don’t want us there."
Haley Jo Dikkers is a recent graduate of Drake University, where she majored in psychology. She is now working as an educational assistant to elementary school children, helping families manage "pod learning" and adjust to remote education. She received a 6-month verbal ban.
Haley Jo says that the ban is not only unfair, it's also intimidating because it is unclear. "I learned that others believed the Capitol Complex extends further than I had even realized, and included even public sidewalks and streets. They never provided me with a clear description of the areas from which we were banned. Because I still have not been provided with a clear description of the Capitol Complex grounds that I am banned from, even when I am around the East Village, or drive through a street near the Capitol, I have anxiety that I am inadvertently wandering into the Capitol Complex grounds. I feel afraid that I could be arrested.
"We were just exercising our First Amendment rights. We were trying to speak our minds and hold our government accountable; that’s part of what it means to be an American citizen," Haley Jo said. "It felt like the ban was arbitrary and a way to silence the community and constituents."
Brad Penna owns a coffee shop in Des Moines and has worked in higher education with a focus on restorative justice. He also holds a master’s degree in theology. He received a 6-month verbal.
"The majority of the people banned from the Capitol are organizers with Des Moines BLM, so it stifles any sort of protesting there. There hasn't been a large protest there in a while, and that’s because a lot of people planning these marches and protests are banned from the Capitol. In my mind, the ban is just a way to silence dissent," Brad says.
Brandi Ramus, Des Moines, runs her own hairstyling business and is the mother of two children. She received a 6-month written ban. That means she can no longer protest there. It also means she can no longer roller skate there or attend weekly yoga classes held at the Capitol.
"I feel like our Capitol is a powerful place," Brandi says. "A place our community gathers quite a bit, whether it be for protesting or for exercising. So not being able to be there has limited my ability to connect in those ways with people and also to use my voice. I feel really confused and angry about what is happening to me and I feel scared about what is happening to people of color as a whole. The police are silencing Black people and allies—and that’s really, really scary."
Des Moines BLM a Catalyst for Reform
Des Moines BLM has been the leader in advancing the Black Lives Matter Movement in Iowa. Their demonstrations have been a catalyst to drive important reforms in Des Moines and in the State of Iowa, including the adoption of a city ordinance banning racial profiling, state legislation prohibiting law enforcement from using chokeholds in many circumstances, and the adoption of an executive order restoring voting rights to most people convicted of felony offenses.
Black Americans and other people of color have long experienced disproportionate use of force and other abuses by law enforcement officers. Black Americans are disproportionately arrested for offenses committed at the same rates by Black and white people. They also make up a disproportionately high percentage of people confined in America’s jails and prisons.
In Iowa, these disparities are among the worst in the country. A Black person in Iowa is seven times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than a white person, although the two groups use at equal rates. This is the fifth-worst disparity in the country. While only three percent of Iowans are Black, twenty-six percent of prison inmates in Iowa are Black. A Black person in Iowa is 11 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white person. This is the third-worst disparity in the country.
The ACLU of Iowa legal team is joined by cooperating Des Moines civil rights attorneys Nathan A. Mundy of Mundy Law Office, P.C., and Glen Downey of The Law Offices of Glen S. Downey, LLC.
The lawsuit asks that the court block the bans so that the five can return to the Capitol Complex to exercise their constitutional rights, as well as damages and attorney's fees.
Find the legal documents here.
Photographs of some of the protestors can be found here.