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ACLU Lawsuit Accuses Iowa State Patrol Of Violating BLM Protesters' Free Speech Rights

Wikimedia/Library of Congress
Seventeen racial justice protesters were told in July they'd be arrested if they returned to the Capitol complex.

The ACLU of Iowa filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday on behalf of five Black Lives Matter activists accusing the Iowa State Patrol of violating protesters’ free speech rights by banning them from the Iowa State Capitol grounds and surrounding areas.

In July, the state patrol told 17 racial justice protesters they’d be arrested if they returned to the Capitol complex. Some were banned for six months, and others were banned for a year. Two of the ACLU’s five clients received only verbal warnings from the ISP to that effect, and three of them received follow-up letters in the mail.

“This is a stunning violation of their constitutional rights,” said Rita Bettis Austen, legal director for the ACLU of Iowa. “This is true censorship. This prohibits them from exercising their free speech rights, their rights to assemble, petition their government for redress of grievances, on the front end.”

She said courts do not allow this for the most part, except in rare cases involving imminent threats to national security. And she said she believes the bans are “unprecedented,” and that no other groups have been treated like this by the state patrol.

Courtesy ACLU of Iowa
Jalesha Johnson is a Des Moines Black Lives Matter organizer and Drake University student.

Bettis Austen said the area her clients are banned from is about 24 square blocks, and includes public sidewalks, streets and parks. They’re asking the court to block the state patrol from enforcing these bans.

Jalesha Johnson, 21, is a Des Moines BLM organizer and Drake University student who’s been banned from the Capitol area for a year.

“Legislators and the governor can ignore our calls. They can also ignore emails,” Johnson said during a news conference Monday. “We can no longer sit face to face with them. Our best way of conversing with government officials has been taken away. How are we supposed to be heard now?”

Johnson was part of a group of Des Moines BLM organizers who met with Gov. Kim Reynolds in her office in June to discuss restoring voting rights to Iowans with felony convictions.

The bans came after violence broke out between state troopers, protesters and Des Moines police outside of the Iowa Capitol on July 1.

Seventeen protesters were arrested and charged with various offenses, and then the state patrol banned them from the area.

The lawsuit also claims there is no basis in Iowa law for people to be banned from the Capitol grounds for long periods of time.

Bettis Austen said her clients have already been blocked from joining protests at the Capitol, and Des Moines BLM has had to move their protests to other locations because key supporters and leaders are affected by the bans.

Courtesy ACLU of Iowa
Brad Penna

Bettis Austen also said she believes the Iowa State Patrol illegally retaliated against BLM supporters because they disagreed with the protesters’ message.

Asked to comment on the lawsuit Monday afternoon, Iowa State Patrol spokesperson Sgt. Alex Dinkla said he was not aware of the lawsuit and would be unable to comment on pending lawsuits.

Other Black Lives Matter supporters involved in the lawsuit also gave brief statements at the Monday news conference.

“The Capitol is the center of a lot of power in Iowa,” Louise Bequeaith said. “That’s where a lot of decisions that affect change are made. It’s a place where people are told that they should be meeting with their representatives. But with these bans, we’ve been told that if we’re fighting for Black lives, then they don’t want us there.”

Brad Penna said the bans stifled BLM protests near the Capitol.

“So in my mind, the ban is just a way to silence dissent,” Penna said.

Haley Jo Dikkers and Brandi Ramus are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit.