Johnston and Iowa residents ‘outraged’ by Boat House bar sign


Johnston is exploring legal options following complaints from residents last week about a controversial sign posted outside The Boat House bar.

The sign is protected by the First Amendment, but council members are still hoping to find a way to change it or remove it from the roof of the bar.

Mayor Paula Dierenfeld told a city council meeting on Tuesday evening that she was briefed on the sign late last week. She asked city lawyer Tim Pearson to look at the city’s legal options.


The sign also used an insulting word for a woman in reference to Vice President Kamala Harris and said that she and President Joe Biden “should go.”

The sign then directs questions and comments to an online pornographic website. The website was repainted by employees on Tuesday after Police Chief Dennis McDaniel spoke with the manager.

Pearson said the sign falls under the protection of free speech and the city’s hands are largely tied unless it can prove the sign is obscene.

To do this, the city will have to prove that the sign lacks literary, artistic, political or scientific value, that the sign describes sexual conduct in an offensive manner, or that the sign appeals to an unhealthy interest in sex.

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“The onus is extremely high on the city in enforcing these types of First Amendment declarations,” Pearson said. “It’s important to know that we’ve looked at all of the options available and that’s what we determined – that we would have a heavy burden.”

He said if the city removed the sign or demanded it be changed, the law society could take the case to Federal Court. Pearson was not convinced the city would succeed.

According to Google Street View, the bar had no sign on its roof as of September 2019. A previous version of the sign, posted on the bar’s Facebook page in May, read, “WE REST WITH THE ENFORCEMNET LAW (sic). WE BELIEVE IN GOD, WEAPONS AND THE LAND. DR SUESS IS ON OUR MUST READ LIST. If you don’t like it, why did you read it? “

“I almost think that’s what they want,” said Rhonda Martin, city council member. “The first signs were silly, but they were rubbish. But now they’ve intensified, every sign going up.”

In a Facebook post on Wednesday, The Boat House linked a KCCI article on the board’s discussion on the panel and thanked customers for their support, saying “free speech is alive and well.”

An employee of The Boat House declined to comment on the sign when it arrived Thursday morning.

Dierenfeld said the city had contacted the owner of the bar and hoped to strike up a conversation with him about the sign. She said she had never received more feedback from residents on an issue than she had on the business sign.

“I think it’s representative of our community,” she said. “They are offended by it, they are outraged and they want something done about it.”

She said she considered the sign “offensive, probably in bad taste” and wished it wasn’t on the bar.

“I think it’s a reflection on the business and the owner of the business; I don’t think it’s generally a reflection on the community,” she said.

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City council member Suresh Reddy said he wanted the reference to Vice President Kamala Harris removed from the sign.

“It refers to a minority and a vice president of the country,” Reddy said. “… It’s a really derogatory term; it’s a hateful term. I think we should do something about it, (but) I’m not sure what we can do.”

Democrats in the Johnston area posted an image of the panel on their Facebook page on July 2, saying “If you have a problem with this write to city council, join the Democrats in the Johnston area and be sure to help others VOTE! “

The city’s communications director, Janet Wilwerding, said on Thursday that the city did not have a timetable for action at the moment.

“We continue to work with Tim Pearson, our town lawyer, to see if this violates campaign laws or hate speech,” she said. “Our elected officials work on it daily.”

Sarah LeBlanc covers the western suburbs for the Registry. Contact her at 515-284-8161 or Follow her on Twitter at @sarahkayleblanc

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