Protesters banned from Iowa Capitol reach settlement with the state in First Amendment lawsuit

The Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, March 30, 2021. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

The Iowa Department of Public Safety and Iowa State Patrol (ISP) will no longer attempt to ban protesters from the Iowa State Capitol for participating in protests, as it did last year, under the terms of a settlement approved by a federal judge on Tuesday. The state of Iowa will also pay $5,000 each to five protesters who sued over being banned from the Capitol by ISP, as well as $45,000 to cover the plaintiffs’ attorney fees.

“We are very pleased with this outcome,” Rita Bettis Austin, legal director for the ACLU of Iowa, said in a written statement after Judge Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger approved the settlement. “We are grateful to our clients for challenging the constitutionality of these bans. They are protecting their fellow protesters and everyone else who wasn’t a plaintiff in this case by getting the bans of all protesters withdrawn.”

The ACLU of Iowa filed a lawsuit on behalf of five of the 17 protesters to whom the ISP issued bans. The 17 protesters had been arrested or detained after a physical confrontation with ISP and Des Moines police officers during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Capitol on July 1, 2020, and then received verbal or written notice that they were banned from the Iowa State Capitol Building and grounds for periods ranging from six month to one year.

The written ban notice issued by ISP told protesters, “As a result of your actions and/or behavior toward citizen(s) and/or employee(s) of the State of Iowa on July 1st, 2020, any continued and future presence on or about the property after the date of this letter will not be welcome or tolerated… [Y]ou are hereby notified that you are to abstain from entering upon any portion(s) of the property known as 1007 East Grand Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50319 including yards, parking areas, state owned streets and sidewalks, and all state owned facilities within the Capitol Complex grounds.”

The 17 protesters were all warned they could arrested for trespassing if they were on any part of the Capitol grounds during the duration of their bans. The ISP banned the protesters at the request of Republican leaders of the Iowa Legislature, who were at the Capitol on July 1.

On Oct. 5, the ACLU of Iowa filed a lawsuit on behalf of Haley Jo Dikkers, Brad Penna, and Brandi Ramus, who had received six-month bans, and of Jalesha Johnson and Louise Bequeaith who the ISP had said were prohibited from returning to the Capitol for one year.

The lawsuit argued the bans violated rights guaranteed to the protesters under the U.S. Constitution.

“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,” Bettis Austen said when the lawsuit was filed. “We are also challenging the bans as a violation of our clients’ fundamental freedom of movement, and due process.”

Jalesha Johnson — courtesy of the ACLU of Iowa

Jalesha Johnson, a Drake University student and an organizer with Des Moines BLM, spoke about the impact of her one-year ban in a statement in October.

“As a young person, as a Black person, as a woman, in professional spaces, our voices are not heard,” Johnson said. “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.”

“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?”

On Dec. 10, Judge Goodgame Ebinger issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting the state from enforcing the bans.

Goodgame Ebinger found the bans overly broad, and did not accept the state’s argument that the bans were necessary because they “were issued for the purpose of public safety.”

“The Court finds the bans likely burden more speech than is necessary to achieve the significant state interests of preventing violence and ensuring public safety,” the judge wrote in her decision. “The bans provide no process by which Plaintiffs can petition to exercise their First Amendment rights at the Capitol or on the Capitol Complex grounds.”

Goodgame Ebinger noted ISP has “other available means to achieve the public interests in peaceful assembly and public safety.”

The state entered into settlement talks with the ACLU of Iowa after the injunction was issued. The Iowa Department of Public Safety and ISP agreed to drop all 17 bans and not issue similar bans on “future use of, or entrance to, the traditional public forum space of the Iowa Capitol Complex” for “activities protected by the First Amendment.”

On Aug. 2, the Iowa State Board of Appeals approved the use of taxpayer money to settle the case with the $5,000 payments to the five plaintiffs and the $45,000 in legal fees.

In a statement on Tuesday, Jalesha Johnson said, “The most important work we did happened on the Capitol grounds. I feel hopeful and inspired that we’ll be able to frequent the Capitol again.”

As part of the settlement agreement, ISP also agreed to continue ongoing First Amendment training for its officers assigned to the Capitol Complex.

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