The Republican-controlled Legislature is moving to tighten rules for people watching lawmakers from the galleries during floor debates — including barring observers considered disruptive — despite objections from free speech advocates.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said Friday his chamber would take up new gallery rules next week to make sure senators are safe. On Thursday, the Assembly adopted tougher rules that say anyone who engages in “prohibited” actions may be removed from the galleries and not be allowed back in for a period of time ranging from 24 hours to the entire two-year legislative session, depending on the number of violations.
The Assembly approved the rules on a mostly party-line vote, with just one Democrat joining Republicans in support of the rules.
Fitzgerald spokesman Tom Evenson declined to provide details about gallery rules being considered by the Senate, saying the majority leader’s office is still discussing possible changes with Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee.
“We are working on improvements that deal with bringing a reasonable and respectful level of order and decorum to the Senate,” Evenson said. “Our goal is to ensure safety and security for the observing public, senators and staff.”
Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, said the Legislature has a right to establish rules of decorum in the gallery, but added that the rules need to be reasonable. Such behavior as unfurling large banners, ruffling newspapers or talking on cell phones could be banned because it is disruptive for lawmakers, he said.
Instead, he said, the new rules at the Capitol are going too far.
Republican leaders “want to treat the citizens of Wisconsin, the voters, like 19th century parents want to treat children — seen but not heard,” Ahmuty said.
The Assembly rules — which codify previous guidelines posted outside the gallery — say visitors may not use “audio or video devices to record, photograph, film, videotape, or in any way depict the proceedings on or about the assembly floor.” And Assembly visitors are prohibited from using cellphones or pagers,
reading newspapers or other printed materials, eating food or drinking beverages, displaying signs or placards, carrying bags or briefcases, or wearing hats.
Ahmuty said bans on holding small signs, taking notes on a notepad, using a voice recorder or taking pictures with a cell phone camera are not reasonable restrictions.
Those rules could cause problems for bloggers who don’t receive the same credentials as members of the media, he said. Ahmuty also wondered whether elementary school students who visit the gallery on field trips would have to check their notebooks at the door.
He also had concerns that a rule banning hats in the gallery doesn’t accommodate people who wear Sikh turbans, skullcaps or veils for religious reasons.
A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said exceptions can be made to the rules by the presiding officer.
The Assembly rules also say that anyone who engages in “a prohibited action” may be removed from the galleries and not be allowed back in for 24 hours. For a second violation during a two-year session, that person would be barred from the galleries until the next regularly scheduled floor period, and for a third violation the person would not be allowed back for the remainder of the legislative session.
State Journal reporter Matthew DeFour and the Associated Press contributed to this report.