By Kevin Binversie | Special to Wisconsin Reporter
Does the Wisconsin Legislature have the right to refuse service to a “customer?”
A business is well within its rights to get rid of a rowdy, unruly patron. Sometimes it’s a matter of asking someone to leave the establishment. If things get out of hand, the disruptive customer is removed. Every once in a while, a real jerk might be banned from the place.
Assembly Republicans passed the same kind of rules of business this month, just days before the Senate, on party lines, approved its rules package.
The new rules dramatically change the codes of conduct on public viewing from the legislative galleries.
Following the fiery 2011-12 legislative session, when chaos was the norm both on the floor and in the galleries, new punishments have been adopted for repeat violators of the galleries’ rules of decorum.
As in the past, state Capitol police have the authority to remove members of the public from the gallery. Going forward, a “three strikes” system will be in effect, with a first-time offenders being tossed from the gallery for the rest of the day. A second violation will result in removal from the gallery until the next floor session. A third strike carries a ban from the gallery until the end of the biennial legislative session.
Prior to the new rules, a violator removed during the morning session could be processed by the Capitol police for disorderly conduct during lunch and back in his seat as the afternoon session was gaveled in.
There is little doubt this policy is not intended for the general public at large, but a rag-tag bunch of diehard protesters who have become mainstays in the state Capitol rotunda. It’s meant to handle the types who willingly place their necks in bike locks, not an elementary school group touring the Capitol on a field trip or the random scragglier who wanders in to watch the Legislature in action.
Critics of the new legislative rules say they go too far, that the free speech rights of the protesters guaranteed in the First Amendment trump the ability for legislative business to take place.
But the First Amendment is not an open license to be a jerk. What those causing disturbances in the legislative galleries are doing might not qualify for the Brandenburg Test, but it doesn’t mean they have to be listened to at the expense of others. If the past two years have shown us anything, it is clear those protesting the Legislature are not necessarily interested in being heard. Many are intent on just shutting the institution down and grinding legislative business to a halt.
The new rules are nothing compared to code governing the legislative galleries of the U.S. Capitol. For starters, would-be visitors have to obtain a pass to enter the galleries. Then there are the metal detectors and X-ray machines.
Entry passes may be obtained at either the office of your local congressional representative or U.S. Senator.
With such a rule in place, security can then track gallery attendees, and which office gave a pass to an unruly soul. Perhaps the protesters (and a few consenting lawmakers) in Madison should be glad the new rules don’t mirror the ones on the federal level.
Compared to the red tape in Washington, D.C., gallery viewers at the Capitol have it made. If anything, it shows just how open the Capitol is in a post 9-11 world and how easily that openness has been exploited.
Lost in the debate over the new rules is how, despite being a public building, the Capitol still is an office building. There are people trying to get the people’s business done on a daily basis.
These rules aren’t about “shutting up protesters,” as critics believe. They are about trying to return a sense of etiquette and order to a legislative process which has been lacking it for far too long.
Veteran political blogger Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native. He served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, worked at the Heritage Foundation and has worked on numerous state Republican campaigns, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org