Actions taken to quell a protest in the gallery of the Kansas Senate on the final day of the Legislative session, including the expulsion of news reporters from the chamber floor, add kindling to a legal firestorm over policy governing Statehouse decorum.
The American Civil Liberties Union in Kansas earlier this year challenged rules that ban handheld signs, prohibit unnecessary noise and require the prior approval of activities after Kansas State University students were evicted for staging a protest in March.
Both protests involved supporters of Medicaid expansion who targeted GOP leaders for standing in the way of legislation that would provide health care coverage to an additional 130,000 low-income adults and their children.
The ACLU sued the superintendent of the Kansas Highway Patrol, secretary of the the Department of Administration and director of legislative services for enforcement of rules that restrict First Amendment rights to free speech and protest.
A hearing scheduled for Wednesday before a federal judge in Topeka will include arguments on whether to issue a temporary injunction that would block enforcement of the rules pending the outcome of the case.
"The rules the state is trying to defend are grossly overbroad," said ACLU Kansas spokesman Mark McCormick. "The state’s position gives individual state officials extraordinary power and oversight over every square foot of the Statehouse as well as over every inch of ground it rests on."
K-State students Jonathan Cole, Katie Sullivan and Nathan Faflick are plaintiffs in the case. They joined Topeka Rev. Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan in unfurling banners 24 feet tall and 10 feet wide from the four corners of the Statehouse rotunda in a March 27 demonstration. The banners declared GOP leaders had "blood on their hands."
Capitol Police Officer Scott Whitsell detained the students, told them they were banned from the Statehouse for a year and threatened them with a criminal trespass charge if they returned. A day later, Whitsell's supervisor rescinded the one-year ban.
The ACLU said the brief ban has a chilling effect on anyone seeking to demonstrate at the Capitol in the future, particularly since rules allow Capitol Police, a division of the highway patrol, to expel a visitor for any violation. The students want to continue to voice their support for Medicaid expansion at the Statehouse but risk arrest if they return, the ACLU said.
The ACLU's legal action served as a backdrop to a May 29 protest, when Oglesby-Dunegan and eight others began singing and shouting in the public seating area overlooking the Senate, bringing proceedings to a halt.
Police delayed taking action for 20 minutes, until Senate President Susan Wagle's staff, at Whitsell's urging, threatened to revoke floor passes for news reporters if they didn't leave. Lawmakers, their aides, Statehouse staff members and others were allowed to stay on the floor. After the reporters were out of sight, police removed the protestors.
Reporters were allowed to return when Senate proceedings resumed, but doors were closed to the public viewing area in a possible violation of open meetings law. Wagle said she wanted to prevent further disruptions.
The Topeka Capital-Journal joined the Kansas Sunshine Coalition, Kansas Press Association and others in lodging a complaint with the Kansas Attorney General's office over the handling of the May protest.
Stephen Wade, senior group publisher for GateHouse Media Kansas, which includes The Capital-Journal, said the decision to remove news reporters was "disappointing and disgraceful."
"The threat of credential revocation is clearly an attempt at prior restraint against coverage that is against the liking of the Senate President," Wade wrote in the letter to the A.G.'s office. "I urge you to find a quick resolution to this complaint so that this will not happen again."
McCormick, the ACLU Kansas spokesman, said the response to the May protest further demonstrates the need to reshape guidelines for police "to limit their authority to eject or ban citizens from the Statehouse for engaging in First Amendment activity."
At a Legislative Coordinating Council meeting hours after the May protest, GOP leaders reflected on the day's events and a Statehouse rule that bans singing at certain times. Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning proposed making an exception for "Home on the Range," the official state song, which is traditionally performed on Kansas Day in both chambers.