After reviewing a staff report Tuesday evening prepared by city attorneys about ordinances on the books in other Iowa towns placing rules on public protests, members of the Ames council indicated they had no interest in establishing similar regulations here.
The report was prompted by a letter sent to the council last year by Main Street Cultural District Director Cindy Hicks on behalf of a downtown pet store owner, and the owner’s subsequent submission to the council of a petition supporting an ordinance, to address alleged problems caused by members of local animal welfare group Bailing Out Benji. For the past four years, the group has protested outside the store because its members oppose the large-scale breeding facilities from where the owner gets his dogs.
The Burnett Avenue store, Dyvig’s Pet Shoppe, has sat between Main and Fifth streets in downtown Ames for more than seven years. For much of that time, the protesters have camped outside on weekends with signs, lawn chairs, and dogs of their own. In the process, according to store owner Dale Dyvig, they have blocked a public sidewalk in violation of an existing ordinance, intimidated and harassed customers (or would-be customers), distracted traffic, and let children roam free with little supervision.
But, as Ames police have said before, no member of Bailing Out Benji has ever been cited for any violation despite regular visits in response to complaints from the store, and their actions, although disruptive to Dyvig and some of his customers, are well within their constitutionally protected rights.
Assistant City Attorney Mark Lambert, who reached out to other towns to see if they had any ordinances similar to what Dyvig was requesting, echoed police Tuesday: “By far the most common response we got was we have no ordinance addressing this issue, and I think that’s because of some pretty obvious First Amendment concerns.” Lambert and others added that existing ordinances, such as disorderly conduct rules, could be used in Ames and other cities to handle the sort of problems Dyvig alleged.
City attorneys did come across ordinances in two other communities: Iowa City, which Lambert said prohibited picketing in residential areas but also waived curfews to encourage minors to take part in public protests elsewhere; and Fort Madison, the only place they found comprehensive protest regulations, which they elaborated on in the staff report:
In summary, here are the key points of the ordinance: first, it defines terms such as “demonstrations,” “parade,” “picket line,” etc. The ordinance establishes parade permits, and then goes on to directly regulate “picketing.” The ordinance states that picketing can only be conducted on the sidewalk, not on the street. It limits the number of picketers promoting the same objective to ten at a time within a single block. The signs held by picketers/demonstrators are limited in size to two feet by two feet. Picketers must march in single file and not abreast and not closer together than fifteen feet, except in passing each other. Picketers/demonstrators must remain within five feet of the curb and be in continuous motion. If picketers/demonstrators promoting different objectives are both present, and result in more than ten persons, the police shall allot time to each group on an equitable basis. This ordinance seems more inclined toward labor-dispute picketing, or gatherings of large groups of picketers on differing sides of an issue.
Taking to the lectern, Dyvig said he would like to see an ordinance in Ames with rules requiring a 30-day protest permit and prohibiting lawn chairs, dogs, and children from joining, as well as other regulations similar to those in Fort Madison. (Lambert described Fort Madison’s ordinance as “seriously suspect constitutionally.”)
“They seem to be peaceful protesters from the outside, but behind the scenes they’ve harassed our employees and [impugned] our character with untruthful comments on their website,” Dyvig said. (The kennels Dyvig’s dogs come from have not been cited for any USDA violations in recent years. Bailing Out Benji’s website does not always make this clear, although the group’s founder, Mindi Callison, has chalked it up to an inadequate inspections process.)
But even one of Dyvig’s own customers — Amber Corrieri, a member of the council — was skeptical about his claims. “I’ve been into the store multiple times when they were protesting and have never once been intimidated, approached by them without asking for my permission, or disrupted in any way in the business I was doing in the store.”
Councilman Tim Gartin, a real estate attorney, also opposed an ordinance change, suggesting to Dyvig that he instead install sidewalk-facing surveillance cameras so he could document the violations of current ordinances he said were happening, and find legal counsel to discuss if he might have a private course of action against protesters if they were unlawfully harassing his business.
Letter to council submitted by Main Street Cultural District Director Cindy Hicks in June 2015:
Dale Dyvig’s June 2015 letter to council with photos documenting actions by protesters that concerned him: