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Senate panel rejects part of new capitol grounds use rules, cites free speech concerns

The Senate State Affairs Committee has voted to accept new rules for the state Capitol grounds and surrounding areas, but to reject sections limiting events and exhibits to certain hours and locations, along with a section limiting amplified sound. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, made the motion, and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, seconded it. The committee’s two minority Democrats offered an alternative motion to reject the rules in their entirety, but it was voted down.

“In the past we haven’t had mass confusion and disaster on the state Capitol grounds based on the fact that the policies and rules and guidelines weren’t in effect,” said Sen. Eliot Werk, D-Boise, who argued that the rules go too far to restrict free speech and public gatherings. Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said, “Just because we don’t philosophically or by definition agree with what a group does, we promulgate rules. I think that’s the crux of the problem here.”

Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said, “These rules are going to apply to every group that comes here. I think that’s important, that they’re administered fairly and evenly across the board, and that’s certainly the intent. ... We did find out that by not having them last year we did have some misunderstandings, we did have some oh, I wouldn’t call it chaos, but we had some challenges that we need to deal with.” Last year’s “Occupy Boise” encampment across the street from the state Capitol prompted the new rules. Said Winder, “These rules apply to everybody no matter what the group is. So it’s not trying to single out a particular group or political philosophy.”

Hill said, “We have to have these kinds of rules because there are people who are disrespectful of the public’s property. … We have to continue to look at each rule to make sure … the innocent, the responsible citizen is in no way going to be hurt by this, or have some of their rights or privileges compromised in any way.”

Davis said, “It does stick in my mind that we did ask for accelerated rule-making, and that wasn’t fair to the department. It did put them in a difficult spot. With hindsight, I wished we had done that differently and allowed the department the time it needed to participate in a more deliberative process,  and very candidly, it’s remarkable that they’ve been able to do what they have in that limited period of time. But I believe that in this area, this is one that we should invite our department to revisit at least those three sections.” While they do that, he said, if they find they need to modify other parts of the rule “to encourage the exercise of free speech rights, that they know that the Legislature is committed to them wanting to do that.” The motion adopts the rule with the exceptions of sections 201, 313, and all but section E of 302. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Idaho Senate panel dumps some rules on protests
By JOHN MILLER, Associated Press 

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Republicans on a Senate panel approved new rules governing protests at state property surrounding the Idaho Capitol, but eliminated some proposed limitations on where, when and for how long people can gather on public property, for fear they would have encroached on constitutionally-protected free speech.

The Senate State Affairs Committee spent nearly two hours Wednesday debating the regulations, drawn up by the Department of Administration last year in a bid to prevent long-term protests like Occupy Boise, the tent encampment that ran from November 2011 to June 2012.

This isn't the last the public will hear of the issue: The House State Affairs Committee is separately considering the rules and has planned public hearings, after its members raised concerns similar to those of the senators. The House would have to approve the Senate's changes, if they are to take effect.

According to Wednesday's Senate vote, however, the rules no longer restrict the hours of protests or forbid groups from gathering on the east and west steps of the Capitol. It also struck a provision that prohibited groups from using loudspeakers or megaphones, except when they first got a permit from the state.

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said he worried that provision would illegally crimp citizens' ability to make their opinions heard.

"I'm personally troubled on non-permitted speech being precluded from sound amplification," Davis said.

The rules would forbid camping, essentially halting any future Occupy Boise-style demonstrations in which people pitched their tents overnight for months to protest income inequality and what its supporters viewed as a government that catered to wealthy, corporate interests and was no longer sensitive to the concerns of regular Americans.

Even though limits including restrictions on protest times and locations were eliminated, the American Civil Liberties Union said it remains concerned over the rules in their entirety.

The group will continue its lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the state over these rules, which have been temporarily in effect since last year.

The next federal court hearing is in February in Boise.

"The ACLU still believes that the rules governing the Capitol Mall and the exterior of the Idaho Capitol should have been rejected in total, giving the department of administration the opportunity to do them within compliance with the First Amendment," Idaho ACLU executive director Monica Hopkins said, following the vote.

Asked whether her agency would attempt to modify the time and location restrictions and bring them again before the Legislature, Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna said she was waiting for the outcome of the House committee's action before deciding what to do next.

Like the ACLU, two Democrats on the panel — Sens. Michelle Stennett of Ketchum and Elliot Werk of Boise — wanted the rules rejected in their entirety.

Seven Republicans voted for the modified rules, however, arguing they would help ensure that the Capitol was accessible to everyone of every political persuasion. They said the limitations were reasonable, and included only to curb concerns many GOP lawmakers had about Occupy Boise's longstanding protest vigil.

For them, the pitched tents and open cooking violated the decorum most members of the public demand of activities on state property.

"We have to have these kinds of rules because there are people who are disrespectful of the public's property," said Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg. "We have to continue to look at each rule to make sure the innocent, the responsible citizen is in no way going to be hurt by this, or have some of their rights or privileges compromised in any way."

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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