17 July 2010

Judge blasts Iowa sheriff for denying gun permit to man considered ‘weird’

DesMoines Register

A federal judge has strongly chided an Iowa sheriff for denying a gun permit to a government watchdog and anti-abortion advocate who some community members considered “weird.”

It was wrong for Osceola County Sheriff Douglas Weber to deny Paul Dorr, an Ocheyedan father of 11 home-schooled children, a permit that would allow him to carry a concealed weapon, according to a court opinion issued Wednesday.

“The court finds a tsunami, a maelstrom, an avalanche, of direct, uncontroverted evidence in Sheriff Weber’s own testimony to conclude beyond all doubt that he unquestionably violated the First Amendment rights of … Paul Dorr,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Mark W. Bennett of the Northern District of Iowa.

The judge continued: “This is a great reminder that the First Amendment protects the sole individual who may be a gadfly, kook, weirdo, nut job, whacko, and spook, with the same force of protection as folks with more majoritarian and popular views.”

The Dorr case, filed in October 2008, inspired some grassroots activists to push for changes in the state law that gives Iowa sheriff’s almost unlimited discretion to deny weapons permits.

After intense lobbying from Iowa gun rights advocates and the National Rifle Association, state lawmakers earlier this year approved legislation that spells out a narrow list of reasons why a sheriff can deny a permit. The new law takes effect Jan. 1, 2011.

In his ruling Wednesday, Bennett ordered the Osceola County sheriff to immediately issue Dorr a nonprofessional permit to carry a weapon.

The judge also ordered Weber to successfully complete a court-approved course on the United States Constitution within the next five months.

“In denying (Dorr) a concealed weapons permit, Sheriff Weber single-handedly hijacked the First Amendment and nullified its freedoms and protections,” Bennett wrote.

Weber, a Republican who has been either a deputy or a sheriff in Osceola County since 1979, has long known the Dorr family, court documents state.

“Through the years, Sheriff Weber heard comments about (Dorr) which related to him being ‘weird,’” court documents state. Weber also believed there were people in the county who were afraid of him.

Dorr has been arrested and convicted multiple times for a variety of non-violent offenses connected with protests at abortion clinics – such as blocking doors and praying, court records state.

His anti-abortion activities with a group called Rescue the Perishing stretched into South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Georgia and Virginia, records show.

Dorr has also written letters to the editors of newspapers and distributed flyers.

In spring 2007, Dorr made an open records request for information on the compensation and duties of the deputies in the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office.

He received the sheriff’s policy and procedure manual, but he was “also provided with a large bill for the copies,” the judge stated.

Dorr was billed for 90 minutes of photocopying, plus a fee of 10 cents per page for more than 200 pages of documents, court records state.

Dorr successfully obtained a gun permit from the late 1990s to 2006. Weber was sheriff for two of those years.

But in July 2007, Weber turned him down. Weber wrote on the denied application: “Concern from Public. Don’t trust him.”

Weber testified that after Dorr began to work with a group that challenged the county budget: “People started talking about it saying things like, ‘Oh, that guy’s a nut job. Oh, that guy’s whacko.’”

Dorr said he applied for the ability to carry a weapon because he supplemented his income by selling balloons along a parade route in Sioux City. This required him or his relatives to carry as much as $1,500 in cash in fanny packs.

In 2008, one of Dorr’s sons, Alexander, applied for a permit, saying he helped with the balloon business and had gotten death threats connected to his family’s anti-abortion advocacy. Weber denied the son’s permit and informed Dorr that he would deny any further applications from him.

Both Alexander and Paul Dorr believed Weber’s denials of their applications were the result of their advocacy against county spending, court testimony shows.

The judge agreed.

“Dorr was denied a permit precisely because Sheriff Weber believed that his free speech rights offended the majority of voters in Osceola County,” Bennett wrote in his ruling.

Dorr’s son, Alexander, also sued, but Bennett ruled Wednesday that Weber didn’t retaliate against Alexander Dorr for exercising his First Amendment rights to free speech.

Both Dorrs waived their claims to punitive damages.

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