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Do legislative gallery rules make sense?

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Greg Peck
January 15, 2013

Last Thursday the state Assembly voted, 59-37, with only one Democrat joining the majority Republicans, on new restrictions for gallery visitors.

The rules ban visitors from using audio or video devices to record, photograph, film, videotape the proceedings on the Assembly floor. Visitors also canít use cellphones or pagers, read newspapers or other printed materials, eat or drink, display signs or placards, carry bags or briefcases or wear hats.

Those violating the rules wonít be allowed back for 24 hours. A second violation during the two-year legislative session would ban the person until the next regularly scheduled floor period. A third slip and you would be banned for the rest of the legislative session.

The Republican-controlled Senate might enact similar rules today.

Champions of First Amendment rights no doubt are crying foul. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, however, said the rules are designed to restore decorum to the galleries.

The changes come after 2011 protests over new limits to collective bargaining for most public employees. Critics of those limits resorted to shouting at lawmakers from the gallery and even using bike locks to chain themselves to the railings. Gov. Scott Walker will deliver his State of the State speech at 7 tonight, and I seem to recall that some spectators were escorted out after shouting from the gallery during his annual address last year.

Before they go bonkers over these new rules, free-speech advocates might want to consider how these limits compare to restrictions at the U.S. Capitol. Before youíre escorted into the gallery of the U.S. Senate or House, youíll have to give up your battery-operated electronics, any type of recording device, camera, any can or bottle, packages, briefcases, backpacks and suitcases. Leave that cream, lotion and perfume behind, too. While the list doesnít name watches, expect to remove those, as well.

Heck, when my wife and I visited the House gallery for our allotted minutes (almost 15!) two years ago after a Disney World-like wait, I had along a pocket-sized notebook and started scratching notes with a pen as House members debated funding for the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program. While I wasnít bothering anyone, I was ordered to put the pen and notepad away. As a citizen and full-time journalist, you can bet that demand made me feel as though my First Amendment rights were being violated.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook



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