Lawsuit seeks to invalidate Iowa’s flag abuse laws
IOWA CITY (AP) — A lawsuit filed Thursday seeks a court order that would stop police from enforcing Iowa laws that make it a crime to disrespect the American flag.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa brought the lawsuit on behalf of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., whose members are known for protesting outside funerals with anti-gay messages.
Police chiefs in Council Bluffs and Red Oak threatened to bring criminal charges against members if they desecrated flags during protests between 2010 and 2012, the lawsuit claims. They drag, stand and spit on flags during protests.
One law says it's a misdemeanor to deface, mutilate, trample or disrespect the American flag. Another says it's disorderly conduct to disrespect the flag to "provoke or encourage another to commit a public offense."
U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt ruled in 2007 that they were unconstitutional because they failed to "put a person of reasonable intelligence on notice of what conduct is prohibited." It was unclear how they defined terms such as "flag" and "disrespect," Pratt ruled.
His ruling came in an ACLU lawsuit on behalf of an Ottumwa musician and a Wayne County veteran who had been charged seperately after flying flags upside down during protests.
In response, lawmakers amended the disorderly conduct law to be more specific. But Randall Wilson, legal director of the ACLU of Iowa, said the law remains unconstitutional because it's unclear to the average person what conduct toward a flag would provoke someone else.
"It's classic 'blame the speaker for the harms committed by others'," he said.
Red Oak Police Chief Drew Powers confirmed that he did threaten to enforce the law during church protests outside funerals for a soldier and a motorcycle accident victim.
"It still is on the books," he said. "I was not aware of any case law indicating otherwise."