Keeping people away from public gatherings must be the very last resort

Intimidation is never appropriate for our elected officials, and they must exhaust every alternative before resorting to exclusion.

Modern elected officials, if so inclined, can find vulgar and menacing criticism of their work as soon as they unlock their phones.

Across the country, we have seen large crowds at public gatherings seething with anger, anger that may or may not be built on an accurate understanding of what a board, council, or leader is doing. It is therefore appropriate to waste a moment of pity and appreciation for the officers who risk and endure this type of abuse.

However, none of this changes the fact that the same elected officials have a responsibility to respect long-held conventions of open government and the principles prescribed in the constitution and statutes.

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That brings us to a series of incidents in Iowa where leaders have attempted to silence and disfellowship voters who have publicly voiced their grievances.

They could be viewed as isolated cases. But tough responses deserve to be called out, lest they give even a little credence to the false notion that preventing people from seeing and speaking to their representatives is acceptable.

In Newton last month, Noah Petersen was arrested after speaking at a city council meeting. The mayor told Petersen to go after saying, “I think the two best fascists in this city, Mayor Michael Hansen and the police chief, need to be removed from power.” Petersen refused to go, and the police stepped in.

In fact, it was the second time in October that Petersen had been charged with disorderly conduct at a council meeting; A similar episode had played out three weeks earlier. A law firm representing the city and defending decisions to arrest and prosecute Petersen for his “derogatory” remarks released a stunning statement, arguing that “cities have the ability to set rules regarding reasonable time, To introduce and enforce location and species restrictions on public gatherings.”

That’s right. It also has nothing to do with restricting derogatory remarks.

A trial for the earlier charges is scheduled for December 15. As Petersen’s attorney Gina Messamer wrote, “It is well known that the ability to express one’s opinion on matters of public interest is one of the core safeguards of the Criminal Court First Amendment.”

What’s scary about any current example in Iowa is that it limits people’s ability to petition the government.

Weighing stronger responses is more urgent when prolonged disruptions affect an entity’s ability to conduct its business. At last year’s Des Moines City Council meetings, when activists resisted unchallenged approval of police department spending, police arrested them when they refused to stop talking or leave. Again, mayors and councilors could have done more to avert the confrontation: they could have noticed the public’s obvious interest in a hearing on police spending, but they didn’t.

The legal battle in eastern Iowa continues after the Linn-Mar school district banned Amanda Pierce Snyder from attending board meetings for a year. She was removed from a meeting in August when officials said she disrupted proceedings by interrupting the board discussion to question a proposed contract with a company that supports “social, emotional and behavioral growth”.

Forcibly removing components is questionable enough. A preemptive ban on future public gatherings? That sounds more like retaliation than an attempt to maintain order. Such a ban should not come into effect without much, much greater provocation. Linn-Mar officials should have realized that. You only had to read the news about the Iowa State Patrol’s outrageous order urging racial justice activists to stay out of the statehouse after a 2020 confrontation. A settlement lifted the restrictions and asked the state to pay the activists $70,000.

To be fair, elected leaders often get it right. Some boards read a standard requirement—not a directive—that speakers should avoid putting people down, then sit back and listen, even when a visitor does just that. At a school board meeting in Ankeny last month, anti-mask activist Kimberly Reicks dressed in drag to try to make a point about an after-school performance. Members of the school board gave her the floor, and then they moved on.

That should be the standard approach: let voters have their say, whether it’s coherent or incoherent, true or misleading, polite or scathing.

It is absolutely true that language can be harmful. Words themselves can be violence to oppressed communities. At its extreme, this is a state where angry men have opened fire in public workplaces at least twice in the past 40 years, killing Mount Pleasant Mayor Edd King in 1986 and terrorizing Jackson County bosses in 2014 . Physical security is an unavoidable consideration: Running for office shouldn’t mean risking your life.

The rest of us, the governed, can do our part by petitioning the government in a responsible manner.

But the prospect of some members of the public breaking the rules cannot justify the threat of jail time if they speak out. Intimidation is never appropriate for our elected officials, and they must exhaust every alternative before resorting to exclusion.

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