Noah Petersen's Fight for Free Speech

Oct 31, 2022

Peter Flynn

NEWTON IOWA – Free speech is what separates the United States and the greater western world from all existing and previous societies. That is what I was taught my entire life, but the fundamental assumption of the statement is untrue. The United States may have free speech enshrined in its Constitution, but it frequently does not uphold the idea of free speech in practice.

On October 3rd, community activist Noah Petersen attended a meeting of the Newton City Council with the intention of using his First Amendment right to criticize the Newton Police department for their arrest of Tayvin Galanakis. Galanakis was pulled over by Newton Police for having a headlight out and using his high beams to compensate (something he says he did not know was against traffic laws). This simple misunderstanding was escalated by the Police to Galanakis’ violent arrest.

Noah Petersen came prepared with a detailed statement calling the police violent and accusing them of human rights violations. Petersen also leveled accusations that the Newton Police Department “supports domestic abuse”, citing an officer who has a protective order against him from a former partner. The order explicitly states that the officer is, restrained from committing any further acts of abuse or threats of abuse”. Petersen did not name the officer, Nathan Winters, in his statements. Still, this was enough for Mayor Michael Hansen to decide Petersen’s right to free speech ought to be suspended. When Petersen refused to stop speaking, Hansen ordered him to be arrested. Chief of Police Rob Burdess was happy to oblige. Petersen did not even come close to his 3 minute speaking limit. He was stopped purely because the Mayor did not want to hear what Petersen had to say.

This is the full text of Noah’s statement. Noah originally sent this message as an email to the city to be read as a public comment on April 19th. The city refused stating it contained "derogatory comments". After the second sentence Noah added that the police are "pro domestic violence" at which point he was silenced by the Mayor.

Defund Newton police department. They are a violent, civil and human rights violating organization who do not make our community safer. Reallocate funds from policing to actually help people with substance abuse issues, it is a health issue and the 'war on drugs' is simply a harmful war on human beings in our community.

Reallocate funds to an actually viable public transportation system. Reallocate funds to a different organization that deals with traffic infractions instead of an armed paramilitary to deal with traffic. Relocate funds to deal with the housing crisis by creating a robust public housing program for the poor and working class. Thank you

This egregious violation of the First Amendment is unfortunately not where this pattern of disregard for civil rights ends for the Newton Government. Just weeks later on October 24th, Noah Petersen defiantly returned to the Newton City Council to express his criticisms of that body and its Police force. This time before the public comments section, the City Attorney condescendingly lectured the public, and Petersen in particular, about how “derogatory” comments would not be tolerated. When Petersen referred to the Mayor and Chief Burdess as “fascists” during his comments he was again cut off and arrested for refusing to yield his time. Derogatory is an incredibly subjective term. Petersen did not use any vulgar language or make any defamatory statments. Petersen's comments are sharp criticisms, rooted in fact, and it is his right as a citizen of Newton to express these criticisms.

I spoke with Noah about this situation and his current struggle with the City of Newton. He would like to pass along the following message.

The two top fascists in this town mayor Michael Hanson and the chief of police need to be removed from power. They have shown themselves to be unfit for the positions they are in. Using your power to kidnap your political opponents when they criticize you is unacceptable, authoritarian behavior; anyone who does so should not hold power. Hansen has been Mayor long enough, it’s time for some change. The rest of the Council must also be removed from power if they continue to allow fascists to kidnap speakers from public meetings. The Newton Police are a violent, civil and human rights violating, fascist organization that do not truly make our community safer. They are an organization that employs, as a cop, a person with an active protective order placed on them for domestic abuse. The city will only tell the public ‘no comment, we don’t have to tell you’ when you ask how the police responded to having that person as a cop, (when they can tell us, they make a policy choice not to). It’s not unfair for the community to see a police department as pro-domestic abuse when we see that it enables abuse and refuses to be transparent about how it responds to having abusers on the force.

These are the words the city of Newton found too threatening that rather than listen to them, let alone act on them, they chose to have me forcefully removed from a public meeting instead. The state will always react violently to speech that penetrates the façade that the state is what keeps us safe, it can't allow the people to expose that fact that the state exists to uphold white supremacy and capitalism, not to keep the community safe. I want to encourage you all to make your voice heard, to fight back against the fascist state; for the people to survive we must stand in solidarity with each other.

The Edna Griffin School for Social Justice strongly condemns the actions of Newton Mayor Michael Hansen, Chief of Police Rob Burdess, and the broader Newton Police Department. Free speech is under constant assault around this country and Iowa is no exception. Noah is asking all who are able to show up to Newton city council meetings and let them know that the people are not okay with this fascism, that we must divest from police, which does not make us safer, and invest in programs that actually help the community to flourish and be truly safe.

If you are unable to attend a meeing of the City Council you can contact the City of Newton using the information below.

City of Newton: (641) 792-2787

Mayor Michael Hansen: 641-792-2787 Ext. 2005

Police Department: (641) 791-0850

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