Iowa’s governor gives the First Amendment a second chance

October 19, 2020 3:40 pm

Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks at a news conference Sept. 29, 2020 at Iowa PBS in Johnston. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS livestream)

An unreported positive result occurred last week as Iowa’s governor presided over the presidential re-election rally held Wednesday in Des Moines: Kim Reynolds discovered the First Amendment.

That’s right, the state’s top-ranking official saw merit in letting Iowans gather.

This is the Kim Reynolds who on June 30 was a passenger in a state-trooper driven SUV that nudged a Black Lives Matter protester aside. To be fair, the state patrol said the protester caused the contact when he “intentionally stepped in front of the slowly moving vehicle.”

And, she’s the very politician whose administration barred 17 women and men from the State Capitol building and grounds for demonstrating too vigorously outside her office.

Five of those protesters filed a federal court lawsuit on Oct. 5 contending the ban violated their civil rights. They claim the state issued letters with Kim Reynolds’ name atop the letterhead warning that “any continued and future presence on or about the property after the date of this letter will not be welcome or tolerated … This admonition is continuing and perpetual until January 1st, 2021.”

A different Kim Reynolds spoke out last week, recognizing at least for a day that the people have a right to assemble, to speak, to worship and pray, to publish, and to petition for change.

Therefore, viewed from the best lens, last week’s events perhaps show enlightenment for the state’s chief executive, who has spent the previous nine months overseeing a pandemic response shrouded in secrecy and accompanied by deliberate distribution of misinformation.

Indeed, Gov. Reynolds’ new-found support for individual liberties comes as most of the world saw the Des Moines billboard pointing the way to the “Trump Covid Superspreader Event” where she served as the master of ceremonies.

The governor so supported this event she took to social media to call out the electorate, saying: “Make sure to request your free tickets for the upcoming rally w/President @realDonaldTrump.  It will be this Wednesday at 6:00 PM in Des Moines!  Protect Iowa’s future, and show your support for President Trump!  #Trump2020.”

When asked the next day about the health risks created because persons sat within six feet of one another and shouted and cheered without masks, Gov. Reynolds replied, “”They have a right to peacefully gather … And that was what took place last night.”

She continued by noting her pandemic proclamation limiting social assemblies “”never meant to prohibit the First Amendment right to allow people to gather.”

In the context of her allegiance to Donald Trump no doubt the governor found it easy to promote First Amendment rights.

But this was no ordinary gathering.

First, this public assembly on municipal property was open only to ticketed attendees who, as a condition of access, electronically signed waivers releasing the president and others from liability if they were sickened with the coronavirus.

And Gov. Reynold’s drum-thumping on Twitter left out that attendees needed to leave their “banners, signs, placards” and their “noisemakers, such as air horns, whistles, drums, or bullhorns” at home to comply with the rules of the rally.

(Without explanation, the campaign’s rules also made clear that appliances, such as “toasters,” were banned from the premises as well.)

While Gov. Reynolds’ embrace of the First Amendment bears noting, regrettably it arose from a gathering of the like-minded.

At this rally dissent was not welcome, nor were hand-made signs of support that didn’t match the color and font selections orchestrated by President Trump’s re-election campaign.

Instead, designated human sign-bearers held pink placards declaring “Women for Trump” and green ones stating, “Farmers & Ranchers for Trump.”  Those, plus the signs of “Latinos for Trump” and “Cops for Trump,” made it seem that Iowans were recruited in furtherance of Gov. Reynold’s call to protect the future based on how they looked or where they worked.

Further, it can’t be ignored that this rally mockingly self-proclaimed on another committee-issued, committee-approved placard, “This is a Peaceful Protest.”

Not that this is unusual in the day of packaged campaigning; Joe Biden rallies, before going virtual, included their fair share of signs such as “Fire Fighters for Biden” or “Veterans for Biden 2020.”  Just this week, you could buy a “Republicans for Biden” yard sign on the Internet for a reduced price of $14.88, marked down from $35.99.

Yes, the First Amendment makes this possible for Republicans and Democrats alike, and thankfully so.

It also leaves hope that maybe, just maybe, Gov. Reynolds will pair her public commitment to the First Amendment with future protection for all, irrespective of whether she shares their politics, endorses their positions, supports their causes, or understands and accepts their viewpoints.

Maybe soon, Gov. Reynolds will instruct sworn officers to protect peaceful protesters in Iowa from excessive force and arrest, or even gentle nudging.

Maybe going forward, Gov. Reynolds will drop her attacks of “fake news” that take a page from the president and instead give Iowa reporters the professional respect they accord her.

Maybe from now on, Gov. Reynolds will grant web-based writers such as Laura Belin access to her press conferences even though their publications say things that challenge or upset her.

Last week, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas asked Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing why First Amendment free speech protections are important.

Soon-to-be Justice Barrett replied, “So that minority viewpoints can’t be squashed. So that it’s not just the majority that can speak popular views. You don’t really need the First Amendment if what you’re saying is something that everybody wants to hear, you need it when people are trying to silence you.”

Maybe, just maybe, going forward Gov. Reynolds will remember that by proving her recent reliance on the First Amendment was not a false positive.

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Michael Giudicessi
Michael Giudicessi

Michael Giudicessi practices law in Des Moines with Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP. The opinions here are his rather than those of his law firm or partners. Giudicessi regularly represents individuals and news organizations seeking to exercise and protect their First Amendment rights. He is one of two Iowan’s inducted into the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s State Open Government Hall of Fame.