Lawsuit Seeks Accountability for Unconstitutional Silencing and Arrest During City Council Meeting

Newton, Iowa, officials arrested and prosecuted a citizen because of what he said. Now, with the help of IJ, he’s fighting back with a federal lawsuit.

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · October 12, 2023

When Noah Petersen raised his hand to speak at a Newton, Iowa, city council meeting last October, he had no way of knowing that such a simple act would ultimately lead to his unconstitutional arrest and prosecution, eventual exoneration, and now—a year later—a civil rights lawsuit aimed at holding the town and its officials accountable

Noah’s story starts a few months before his arrest, in August 2022, when a viral video showed Newton police officers arresting a 19 year-old for driving under the influence, despite the fact his breath test showed a blood-alcohol level of 0.00. Frustrated, Noah decided to turn his anger into action and wrote the Newton City Council calling for policing reforms. The city dismissed him out of hand, so Noah decided to read a statement during the council’s public comment period. 

A few days later, after the mayor called on him, Noah stood up and proceeded to calmly read his letter criticizing the Newton police department and the officers who conducted the DUI arrest. At that point, Newton Mayor Michael Hansen banged his gavel and ordered Noah to stop speaking. Noah protested, citing his First Amendment rights, but the mayor didn’t care and ordered the police chief to forcibly remove Noah for violating the city’s rules against criticizing government officials. The next thing Noah knew, the police chief had him in handcuffs. The police then took him to jail, where he was booked, strip searched, and thrown into a cell to wait for his parents. 

Undaunted and undeterred, Noah returned a second time to finish his statement, only to be arrested again. And the city wasn’t content to just silence Noah. Four days later, the city attorney charged him with a criminal offense. Thankfully, a judge saw through the bogus charges and found Noah not guilty.

Now, with the help of the Institute for Justice (IJ), a nonprofit public interest law firm, Noah is filing a federal lawsuit against Newton, its mayor, and its police chief. This lawsuit is a crucial step in the fight against the unconstitutional silencing and arrest of citizens in retaliation for speaking out during city council meetings. 

“The right to criticize the government is a central pillar of our Constitution,” said Brian Morris, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, which represents Noah. “It is embodied in both the text and history of the Founding and First Amendment.” 

Morris continued: “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. Anyone with a high school diploma should know that having your political opponents arrested is a textbook example of violating someone’s First Amendment rights and we’re confident that the courts will agree.”

The lawsuit, filed in federal court, seeks to hold the city of Newton, Mayor Hansen, and the police chief accountable for violating Noah’s First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. It argues that the city and its officials violated the Constitution 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.

“Ironically, the actions of the police department have only proven my point,” said Noah Petersen. “My initial criticism was about the way they treat citizens in our community. They arrested me for exercising my right to free speech—for standing up for what I believe is right. 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 case is about more than just Noah’s rights. It’s about ensuring that government officials understand and respect the constitutional rights of the citizens they serve,” said IJ Attorney James Knight. “No matter what their ideological orientation might be, Americans have the right to peacefully criticize those in power without facing reprisals.”

This lawsuit is part of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability and an extension of IJ’s longstanding work defending Americans’ First Amendment rights from government retaliation. The Institute for Justice is dedicated to protecting the ability of Americans to criticize government actions and hold public officials accountable.

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