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Proposed protest rules on Hill draw fire

Published September 26, 2006 12:26 am

Capitol Hill free speech rules a bad idea that needs to be tossed, critics say
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The debate over Capitol Hill free speech all started with pictures of decaying teeth.

And the brown stumps were back at a public hearing Monday about proposed protest rules for the government complex.

Advocates for the poor, civil rights attorneys, journalists, environmentalists, a Green Party congressional candidate and Salt Lake City Councilwoman Nancy Saxton all told Capitol managers to scrap the rules and start over.

Many wore stickers, saying, "Save free speech." Others passed out a cartoon of people in a government maze - something that wouldn't be allowed when the guidelines are adopted. Some hung pictures of ravaged mouths around their necks to remind Capitol Preservation Board members of the origins of the revised rules.

"If some hearts weren't so hard and some heads so thick, we wouldn't have had to resort to such graphic means to get our message across," said LouAnne Stevenson of the Anti-Hunger Action Committee. "We sued once and will do it again if we are given reason to. Save yourself some grief."

State attorneys had to rewrite Capitol Hill protest rules after Utah courts threw them out in two lawsuits this year. Lawmakers had told Highway Patrol troopers to stop the Utah Animal Rights Coalition, the Anti-Hunger Action Committee and the Disabled Rights Action Committee from passing out leaflets. Lawmakers decried the groups' use of pictures of decaying teeth in lobbying for dental care for low-income residents. Civil rights attorney Brian Barnard sued successfully on their behalf.

"The existing rule we have failed," said West Jordan Rep. Wayne Harper. "We had some things happen that should not have happened. We're trying to make it right."

The new guidelines, posted at http://www.rules.utah.gov, specify where protests can take place, how signs are to be posted and when leaflets can be handed out. There will be no charge for protest permits. Leafleting will be allowed in specific zones - excluding the hallways outside legislative meetings. Solicitation rules will distinguish between free speech and lobbying and commercial activity.

The changed rules were a flop at the public hearing, with no speaker supporting the rules entirely. Barnard urged state attorneys to trash the rules and rewrite them with the assumption that all areas of the Capitol should be open to protest. Any free speech limits should be based on "compelling reasons," he said.

"The state Capitol should be wide open for free speech," he said.

Barnard criticized the new guidelines' definition of free speech as so broad it could block advocates from passing out press releases to reporters, wearing T-shirts with political statements on them, or talking to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. if they happen upon him in the hallway. And he said rules for solicitation and free speech overlap, giving lobbyists more rights on Capitol Hill than regular Utahns.

Others worried Capitol Hill managers will edit messages subjectively.

AARP's Kent Abel wondered whether pictures of decaying teeth would be allowed when the rules are adopted, images Utah lawmakers find "disturbing."

And Allison Barlow Hess, from the Society of Professional Journalists, questioned whether the definition of "leaflets" will include newspapers.

Capitol managers passed out a map of free speech zones that included most of the complex, excluding the state office building and parking lots. But Linda Hilton, from the Coalition of Religious Communities, noted one other glaring absence: the entire East and West Capitol buildings except for their lobbies. The Legislature meets in the West Building, and Huntsman and executive agencies have their offices in the East Building.

"These are all the areas where you will not find a legislator, where you will not find an elected official," Hilton said. "When it gets down to it, the people we would need to talk to, they're everywhere but this area."

Because the Capitol Preservation Board does not oversee the Legislature's buildings, legislative attorneys are drafting their own rules for protest in the East and West buildings.

Salt Lake City Sen. Scott McCoy, for one, argues for more public access.

"Just because some legislators are afraid of the people and what they may have to say this does not justify clipping the First Amendment out of the U.S. and Utah constitutions," McCoy said.

walsh@sltrib.com