Randy Evans, executive director
Iowa Freedom of Information Council
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Around the time the famous movie “The Bridges of Madison County” premiered in 1995, author Robert James Waller was at a book-signing in West Des Moines. Between scribbling his signature for fans on copies of his novel, Waller answered questions from a Des Moines Register reporter.
At one point, the persnickety Iowan became peeved by the nature of the reporter’s questions. He yanked the notebook from her hand and flipped it aside.
That led to a letter to the editor a few days later in the Register in which a reader observed that Waller should use some of his millions in book and movie royalties to buy himself a thicker skin.
Some local government officials in Iowa show signs of needing thicker skins, too, because they have tried to silence critics at meetings of city councils and school boards for making comments they did not like.
Earlier this month, Davenport Mayor Mike Matson threatened to adjourn any city council meeting if a member of the public makes comments that he or the city attorney believe are defamatory toward city employees or officials.
Controversy has bubbled in Cherokee over plans to arm up to 40 school employees with guns. Last month, the school board president read a statement in which the school’s attorney suggested legal action could be taken against a Cherokee mother for calling school officials inept.
And in the Bettendorf school district, as in some other Iowa districts, the school board president reads a statement before the “public forum” portion of each meeting. That statement claims, inaccurately, that Iowa law prohibits discussing specific employees or their job performance.
The Cherokee school board has a similar prohibition on naming individuals, although it cites school policies and Robert’s Rules of Order as the legal basis for preventing speakers from mentioning employees by name.
Do such policies violate the First Amendment’s right to freedom of speech? If people cannot criticize government employees by name during meetings, does that mean they cannot praise an employee, either? It would not be a reasonable viewpoint-neutral position for a city council or school board to take if officials permitted praise but not criticism.
These are not hypothetical questions. Noah Petersen can tell you that.
The Newton man was arrested at successive meetings of the Newton City Council last October for refusing to comply with a city council policy that bars derogatory statements or comments about any individual. Petersen was charged with disorderly conduct for harshly criticizing Newton police officials and Mayor Michael Hansen.
Jasper County Magistrate Peter Lahn found Petersen not guilty. His written verdict should be read by government officials from Ackley to Zwingle because it contains important reminders about the meaning of the First Amendment.
“It would be difficult if not impossible for a concerned citizen to comment regarding city policies or the provision of city services without referencing to some extent an official city position (e.g., mayor, police chief, etc.),” the magistrate wrote.
“The defendant was not a spectator, but rather a participant in a limited public forum during the recognized citizen participation portion of the city council’s meeting. … He did not act in any objectively unreasonable manner. He read a prepared statement relating to the basic city service of policing.”
Magistrate Lahn continued, “The First Amendment is an integral part of our law and social framework. Speech concerning public affairs is the essence of self-government.”
The Newton City Council meetings include a specific time for citizens to share their input on city services and policies, the magistrate said. Petersen remained at the podium and did not use abusive language or gestures when he addressed the council, the magistrate said. Nothing in Petersen’s actions substantially impaired the conduct of the council’s meetings, the magistrate added.
I understand the concerns of government officials in places like Davenport and Cherokee about unnecessary harm to the reputation of government employees. But a bigger concern should be the not-so-subtle form of intimidation these policies represent, especially with the Davenport mayor saying he will immediately adjourn council meetings if a speaker begins making comments that are “defamatory in nature.”
Defamation is not a synonym for criticism. Lots of people criticize me, or my former employer, without crossing the line into defaming me or the Des Moines Register. I knew what I was getting into when my name began appearing on the masthead.
Likewise, it should not surprise Davenport city leaders that some people are critical of how city government responded to complaints about conditions at an apartment in the weeks before the back side of the six-story building collapsed in May, killing three people.
But just because some people’s opinions are critical of city leaders or key city employees does not automatically make those opinions defamatory. When controversy ensues, government officials are shortsighted when they try to take away the ability of people to voice their views of government and its workers.
Voters are perceptive. They see these efforts to muffle dissent for what they are — thinly veiled attempts to intimidate people into silence on the matters of tremendous local interest.
Being able to receive public criticism is in the job description for elected officials and top-level city administrators. At least it should be. It certainly is for newspaper editors.
Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, can be reached at IowaFOICouncil@gmail.com.