The state of Iowa has agreed to pay $70,000 and improve First Amendment training for state troopers in order to settle a lawsuit filed last year by five protesters who were banned from the Iowa Capitol Complex.
Jalesha Johnson, Louise Bequeaith, Brad Penna, Brandi Ramus, and Haley Jo Dikkers were among seventeen people whom state troopers had banned from the capitol grounds following a July 1, 2020 Black Lives Matter protest that led to numerous arrests. They filed suit last October against Iowa Department of Public Safety Commissioner Stephen Bayens and several Iowa State Patrol officials, saying the bans violated their rights under the First, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments.
Under a settlement U.S. District Court Judge Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger approved on August 17, the Iowa Department of Public Safety and Iowa State Patrol agreed to “withdraw all verbal and written bans,” sometimes called trespass warnings, issued to each plaintiff “and other persons receiving such notices on and after July 1, 2020.” The state will inform affected individuals in writing that the bans were rescinded and that they may “continue to enter and use the Iowa Capitol Complex on the same basis and under the same terms as any other law abiding member of the public.”
The state will pay each plaintiff $5,000 and $45,000 to Des Moines attorney Nate Mundy, who along with the ACLU of Iowa represented the protesters. The Iowa State Patrol also agreed to continue First Amendment training for officers assigned to the capitol complex.
Attorneys for the state and ACLU agreed in June on terms to settle the lawsuit. The three-member State Appeal Board unanimously approved the settlement agreement earlier this month, and the federal court’s action finalized the resolution.
Judge Goodgame Ebinger had ruled last December that the bans “likely burden more speech than is necessary to achieve the significant state interests of preventing violence and ensuring public safety,” since there was no way for protesters to “petition to exercise their First Amendment rights at the Capitol or on the Capitol Complex grounds.”
The ACLU of Iowa’s legal director Rita Bettis Austen said in a written statement on August 17,
“The Capitol Complex is approximately 24 city blocks and includes many ‘traditional public forums’—places where Iowans often go to express their rights of free speech like the West Capitol Terrace, outdoor green spaces, sidewalks, streets, paths, and areas around public monuments. There is perhaps no more important traditional public forum in Iowa than the State Capitol.
“The area is intentionally designed for Iowans to gather and speak to an audience of leaders from all three branches of state government. Before we obtained a preliminary injunction in this case, the ban meant that the protestors were unable to participate in demonstrations organized by BLM or other groups on the grounds. The ban also would have prevented the banned protesters from communicating directly with legislators and the Governor’s office during the upcoming 2021 legislative session. This outcome was important to protect the First Amendment rights of our clients and all other Iowans to speak, assemble, and petition their government for redress of grievances.”
Appendix: Full text of August 17 news release from the ACLU of Iowa:
Des Moines, Iowa — Today the federal District Court for the Southern District of Iowa approved and adopted a settlement in which the Iowa Department of Public Safety and Iowa State Patrol (ISP) agreed to withdraw bans that the ISP issued to 17 BLM protesters last summer, including five ACLU clients. The bans forbade the protesters from going to the Iowa Capitol Complex grounds for six months or a year.
Earlier this month, the Iowa State Appeals board voted to approve a recommendation by state lawyers to settle the lawsuit out of court. The settlement included the law enforcement agencies agreeing to not issue similar bans in the future, to continue to provide training on First Amendment rights to the Iowa State Patrol Post 16 (which is responsible for law enforcement on the Iowa Capitol Complex grounds), to pay a financial settlement to the ACLU’s five clients, and attorney fees.
Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa Legal Director, said, “We are very pleased with this outcome. 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 state also agreed to not to issue the same type of ban in the future.
“We also appreciate the state for working to come to an agreement with us in this case, both to resolve this dispute and to protect the First Amendment rights of Iowans at the Capitol moving forward. That’s the optimal outcome,” Bettis Austen said.
The bans were issued to protesters who were arrested while protesting in July 2020, even though most of the charges against the ACLU’s clients were dropped.
In October 2020, the ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of five of the 17 Des Moines BLM protesters who the ISP banned verbally and in writing from the State Capitol. The ISP informed the protestors that if they entered the Capitol Complex grounds in the next six months or a year (depending on the protester), they would be arrested.
However, the law that the ISP cited to issue those bans (Iowa Code section 716.8(1)) does not actually authorize any such bans.
In December 2020, a federal court issued a preliminary injunction, saying the ban indeed was likely violating the protestor’s First Amendment rights. In June 2021, the parties reached an agreement that required approval by the State Appeal Board and the district court to take effect. On August 2, the Appeal Board approved the settlement. Today, the court dismissed the case and approval of the settlement, making the agreement becomes fully effective, resolving the dispute, and ending the case.
Bettis Austen said the activists were banned from a key area for public free speech. “The Capitol Complex is approximately 24 city blocks and includes many ‘traditional public forums’—places where Iowans often go to express their rights of free speech like the West Capitol Terrace, outdoor green spaces, sidewalks, streets, paths, and areas around public monuments. There is perhaps no more important traditional public forum in Iowa than the State Capitol.
“The area is intentionally designed for Iowans to gather and speak to an audience of leaders from all three branches of state government. Before we obtained a preliminary injunction in this case, the ban meant that the protestors were unable to participate in demonstrations organized by BLM or other groups on the grounds. The ban also would have prevented the banned protesters from communicating directly with legislators and the Governor’s office during the upcoming 2021 legislative session. This outcome was important to protect the First Amendment rights of our clients and all other Iowans to speak, assemble, and petition their government for redress of grievances,” Bettis Austen said.
Jalesha Johnson, an employee of a Des Moines Public Schools creative arts program, said the win was important not just for her, but for the larger community of protestors.
“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.” When the ban was in place, it “meant I was at risk of arrest by police for nothing more than protesting lawfully at the Capitol. I am relieved that I don’t have to feel that way anymore,” Johnson said.
Louise Bequeaith, a college student and Des Moines native, said the win was “bittersweet. It’s hard because this shouldn’t have happened in the first place. The Capitol and government are meant to be there for us and to listen. People being punished for protecting our communities and wanting our voices to be heard felt ridiculous. But this is the result that feels like the most justice in this moment.”
Haley Jo Dikkers, an educational assistant to elementary school children, said, “I think protesting is still an important and vital way to interact with our government, especially if they don’t give us other outlets to do so. I’m excited to get back to the streets. When you’re up against the police that have all this qualified immunity and societal power, I feel like they can get away with pretty much anything. So it’s really great that now they won’t be able to ban people from the Capitol, and I hope they won’t try to ban people from protesting in public spaces in the future.”
Brad Penna, who owns a coffee shop in Des Moines, said the win is a “huge step towards making the most political space in the city and even the whole state accessible to people. They can’t ban people following protests now and they know it’s part of a larger movement.
“Before the temporary injunction allowed us back into the area, as a business owner, I would have liked to go to the Capitol when policies about COVID-19 were being discussed. I felt like I didn’t have a voice during that time. Now I feel encouraged to once again advocate for our community,” Penna said.
Brandi Ramus, who owns a Des Moines vegan bakery, said, “I feel like that was a really unreasonable thing that happened to me and the rest of us. I’m glad that they’re saying that they were wrong, even though it just seemed like common sense to me. People should be able to protest in public spaces.”
“I think there’s still a lot of work to do here in Iowa as far as protestors and how our state continues to treat us. This is making an example, showing that overreach of law enforcement to silence protestors is wrong. That’s not their place. The police claim they protect and serve the community, but what they are actually doing is battling against it,” Ramus said.
The ACLU of Iowa legal team was 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, who also worked tirelessly to represent the five clients in successfully defending against separate criminal charges brought against them after they were arrested while protesting.
Top photos all obtained from the ACLU of Iowa. Top row, from left: Jalesha Johnson, Louise Bequeaith. Bottom row, from left: Brad Penna, Brandi Ramus, and Haley Jo Dikkers.