The right to criticize the government is a pillar of our constitutional republic—embodied in the text and history of the First Amendment. And yet, across the country that right continues to be violated by unaccountable government agents. One particularly blatant example of this abuse happened recently in the small town of Newton, Iowa, where a resident named Noah Petersen was arrested for criticizing his mayor and police department.
Petersen, frustrated by the behavior of a local police officer and the police department’s treatment of residents, chose to express his concerns at city council meetings during the public comment period. However, instead of being heard—as was his right—he was arrested twice for “disrupting a lawful assembly.” When the city brought these charges to trial, a judge ruled in Petersen’s favor and confirmed that Petersen had a constitutional right to voice his concerns at the meeting.
Petersen, who has partnered with the Institute for Justice, has now filed a lawsuit against the mayor, the police chief, and the City of Newton. The lawsuit claims violations of his First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights, arguing that his arrest was without probable cause and that he was unfairly singled out for his public comments.
Petersen’s case also challenges the city’s rules against criticizing government officials, asserting that they infringe upon the First Amendment. His fight forms part of IJ’s mission to protect free speech against government retaliation. The lawsuit is also part of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability, which aims to ensure that government officials are not above the Constitution.
Noah Petersen was born and raised in Newton, Iowa—a small town just outside of Des Moines. Last year, Noah became concerned with how the Newton Police Department was mistreating its citizens after a peer of his was harassed and falsely arrested.
Noah tried to quietly raise the issue with his elected representatives on city council. But the council refused to read or accept Noah’s written statement. Undeterred, Noah looked for another way to voice his concerns.
As in countless towns across the country, Newton residents can provide public comments at city council meetings. At each meeting, residents are given three minutes to speak about any topic they choose. Noah decided to attend one of these meetings so he could voice his concerns about the Newton Police Department.
Newton and its officials punish Noah for speaking out, arresting him twice for his criticisms of the local government.
Noah went to the city council meeting October 3, 2022, and, when it was his turn, began to calmly read a pre-written statement from his phone. Noah criticized the Newton Police Department’s practices and its continued employment of an officer who had been accused of domestic abuse, without mentioning the officer’s name. But as soon as Noah made these criticisms—and well before his time was up—Mayor Michael Hansen started banging his gavel, ordered Noah to stop speaking, and called over Chief of Police Rob Burdess to forcibly remove Noah. The mayor claimed that Noah was “out of order” and “violating the rules” without explaining further.
Noah knew he had a First Amendment right to speak, so he tried to continue reading from his prepared statement. When the mayor and police chief threatened to arrest Noah if he didn’t leave immediately, Noah reminded them that his three minutes weren’t over. If they wanted to silence him before his time was up, he said, they’d have to arrest him. The next thing Noah knew, the police chief had him in handcuffs. The police then took Noah to the Jasper County jail, where he was booked, strip searched, and thrown in a cell. Noah made bail when his parents arrived later that night.
But Noah knew his First Amendment rights. So at the next city council meeting on October 24th, Noah went to the podium again to finish reading his statement. Yet as soon as Noah criticized the mayor and police chief—this time, calling them “fascists” for what they did to him during the previous meeting—the mayor furiously banged his gavel and immediately cut Noah’s time short. The mayor told Noah that he could not “defame the chief of police” or make “derogatory remarks about any individual, including an employee of the city of Newton.” When Noah calmly insisted that he had the right to speak and criticize the government, the mayor suspended the meeting and cut the cameras. The police stopped and arrested Noah as he tried to leave the council chambers.
After Noah was removed—and before gaveling the meeting back into session—the mayor spoke to the public, proclaiming, “Go do your activism where somebody cares.”
Newton prosecutes Noah for his speech.
Newton wasn’t content to just silence Noah. In retaliation for Noah’s speech, the city charged him with a crime—“disrupting a lawful assembly.” The victim listed on the charge? “Society.”
But Noah didn’t disrupt either meeting—he read from a prepared statement when it was his turn to speak during the public comment period. The city claimed that Noah’s comments broke a rule against “derogatory” comments. In other words, Noah wasn’t allowed to criticize government officials.
But criticizing government officials is one of the core protections of the First Amendment; a city can’t pass a rule to make free speech a crime.
The county refused to prosecute Noah for his speech, but the city was determined to punish him. So, when county prosecutors wouldn’t take the case, the city’s lawyers brought Noah to trial themselves.
Thankfully, a judge saw through the bogus charges and found Noah not guilty. As the judge explained, Noah had a constitutional right to speak at the city council meeting. The city quickly and quietly dismissed the second charge (for Noah’s speech at the October 24th meeting) before the judge could rule on that, too.
The Constitution protects political speech and prohibits government officials from retaliating against individuals like Noah who exercise their rights.
The First Amendment is the one of the foundations of our constitutional order. By protecting the rights to speak and petition the government, it safeguards Americans’ ability to criticize the actions of government and hold public officials to account. And when people speak out against the government, the First Amendment prohibits government officials from retaliating against their critics. That means that officials cannot take any actions that would chill speech—least of all by charging their critics with crimes just for speaking out. The government cannot jail you because it—or anyone else—dislikes your speech. Unfortunately, across the country this principle is under fire as government officials use their power to silence and retaliate against people expressing a wide range of viewpoints. But Americans have the right to criticize their government without fear of being jailed for their speech.
When officials take illegal or unconstitutional actions, Americans have the right to hold them accountable in court. Yet judges have erected a jumble of legal doctrines and rules that make it incredibly difficult for ordinary people to vindicate their rights. Often, courts have held that government officials are immune from being sued. But that is beginning to change, thanks in part to the Institute for Justice’s efforts to hold government officials accountable.
In a case similar to Noah’s, the Institute for Justice has asked the Supreme Court to hear a case that seeks to hold accountable another mayor and police chief—this time in Texas—who arrested a woman who criticized their ally, the city manager. And more and more federal appeals courts have ruled that official immunity is not absolute: When officials violate citizens’ rights, they can be held accountable in court.
Here, the City of Newton, Mayor Hansen, and Police Chief Burdess silenced, arrested, charged, and prosecuted Noah because he spoke out against city officials. That retaliation is unconstitutional. As a result, the Institute for Justice is partnering with Noah to vindicate his constitutional rights. In addition to being part of IJ’s work to protect free speech from government retaliation, the lawsuit is part of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability, which is devoted to the simple idea that government officials are not above the law; if citizens must follow the law, then government must follow the Constitution.
The Legal Claims
This case raises three types of claims under the First Amendment. First, that two individual government officials—the mayor and police chief—violated Noah’s rights by retaliating against him. Second, that through policy or custom, the City of Newton also violated Noah’s rights. And third, that the city’s rules against criticizing government officials violated the First Amendment.
The case also argues that the city and its officials violated the Fourth Amendment because it was unreasonable to arrest Noah without probable cause. Calmly criticizing the government during a public comment period is not illegal—it’s protected speech.
Finally, the city and its officials violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause because the city lacked any legitimate reason to single out Noah for his public comments. When other residents criticized government officials or violated the public comment rules, they were not arrested, charged, or prosecuted.
The Litigation Team
Institute for Justice Attorneys Brian Morris and James Knight and Senior Attorney Patrick Jaicomo represent Noah Petersen.
The Institute for JusticeFounded in 1991, the Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty. IJ is dedicated to fighting judge-made rules that make it extremely difficult to hold government officials accountable for violating the Constitution. We defend the right to criticize the government without fear of retaliation—whether you’re concerned about potholes, the police, or the curriculum taught in their child’s classroom. Our efforts include direct lawsuits against government officials (including cases in Texas, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan), appellate friend-of-the-court briefs in support of individuals who have suffered at the hands of government officials, and outreach to members of the public who want to know more about the difficulties of holding government officials accountable. We do all this because of our fundamental belief that following the Constitution means being held accountable for violating it.