The Newton man arrested during a city council meeting in October 2022 after criticizing his city’s police department was found not guilty of disorderly conduct on Feb. 1 by the Iowa District Court for Jasper County, which also found council’s rules for citizen participation “overbroad” and “violative” of the First Amendment.
Noah Petersen called for the city to defund the Newton Police Department during an Oct. 3 council meeting, saying the department was a “violent, civil and human rights violating organization” that does not make the community safer. Petersen also claimed the department is “pro-domestic abuse.”
Mayor Mike Hansen cut off Petersen from speaking and called on Newton Police Chief Rob Burdess to escort him from the council chambers. Despite Petersen’s protests that the city council was violating his constitutional rights, he was placed in handcuffs, escorted from the chambers and taken to jail.
Per the city council’s rules, citizens are granted three minutes to speak but are prohibited from making derogatory statements or comments about any individual. Although Petersen’s domestic abuse comment was referring to a specific officer, he did not mention the officer by name. His three minutes were not up either.
According to court documents, Petersen’s comments are protected by the U.S. Constitution. He used no profane language nor did he identify any individual by name or act in any objectively unreasonable manner. Petersen was reading a prepared statement relating to the basic city service of policing.
The court found the City of Newton did not meet its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt that disorderly conduct occurred. It also found Petersen’s actions and statements did not exceed any authority he may lawfully claim under the free speech provision of the U.S Constitution.
While some may not agree with the content of his comments, the court found the statements made by Petersen were not derogatory nor about an individual.
“In the event the statements could be found ‘derogatory’ or a comment about an ‘individual’ as used in the city council’s rules, the court finds these terms vague and overbroad,” court documents stated. “As applied in this particular instance, the Newton City Council rule is violative of the First Amendment.”
The closest Petersen came to identifying an individual was by referring to a city position and an official office. The court determined it would be difficult if not impossible for a concerned citizen to comment regarding policies or the provision of city services without referencing an official city position to some extent.
By definition, the court found the term “derogatory” cannot be considered viewpoint-neutral as the word itself implies a negative or low opinion. Court documents state some derogatory statements can be disruptive and therefore can cause interference or disruption with a meeting while some would not.
Petersen’s actions were not considered boisterous or disruptive such that they impaired the conduct of the meeting.
However, Petersen has another disorderly conduct charge against him that has yet to be decided on. He was arrested again at the Oct. 24 council meeting after calling the mayor and the police chief fascists. The trial will resume in April unless the city drops the case, Petersen told Newton News.
Upon being found not guilty in the first charge, Petersen is happy with the ruling and he expected the court would rule in his favor.