MISS THIS? That was their intention…
Wisconsin lawmakers recently changed the laws pertaining to open meetings in order to stop the practice of late night sessions, a change that upset few people. Tucked in the switch, though, was a provision that did get under peoples’ skin: new rules allowing for visitors to be ejected from the State Legislature’s gallery for no good reason.
With all but one Democrat objecting, the new rules passed with a 59-37 vote and allow officials to remove onlookers who read newspapers, eat food, display signs, wear hats, and take photographs, among other entirely innocuous behavior.
The changes are a not-so-thinly veiled attempt to prevent a repeat of the protests that took place in 2011 and eventually led to the Scott Walker recall election. During that period members of the Wisconsin uprising routinely took to the gallery to chant, document and even lock themselves to the Capitol’s interior itself. And while some of the most extreme Wisconsinite activities of early 2011 may be deserving of ejection, citizens should not be able to be banned for participating in Democracy. The new rules are so general that this is now a real concern.
The randomness of what is and isn’t allowed was explored by The Daily Page:
Taking a photo from the gallery document to the grade school field trip? Forbidden. Unobtrusively recording a legislative session of particular interest? Yer outta here! Taking notes on a laptop? What do you think this is, a classroom?
The rules, which also include a ban on reading newspapers “or other printed materials,” eating food, displaying signs or wearing hats, are so sweeping that legislative spokespeople are stressing that exceptions can be made and discretion will be exercised.
No, a Muslim woman with a veil or Sikh man wearing a turban are not necessarily going to be tossed out on their well-covered ears. A mother feeding Cheerios to her hungry two-year-old may be able to avoid the long arm of the law. An old man with a hearing aid probably won’t be asked to turn that electronic device off.
But a citizen who turns on a tape recorder or video camera to make a record of what his elected representatives are doing — rights the Legislature says citizens may exercise before every other public body in the state — is clearly in violation.
The new rules, which were introduced by Robin Vos and Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, include:
Anyone who engages in “a prohibited action” may be removed from the galleries and not be allowed back in for 24 hours. For a second violation during a two-year session, that person would be barred from the galleries until the next regularly scheduled floor period, and for a third violation the person would not be allowed back for the remainder of the legislative session.
Democrats warned that the new Republican rules would infringe on free speech.
The best one-liner to result from this absurdity came from Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca. Noting the absurdity of being allowed to bring a gun to the Capitol but not a sign, Barca responded to the rules changes by saying,
“Something you seem to forget, the First Amendment is as important as the Second.”