More often than not, the doors of the Majority Caucus Room at the Idaho Statehouse are closed. That's where the Gem State's GOP has mapped its strategy of late (Idaho Democrats haven't held a majority in the House or Senate since 1960). The doors were wide open Jan. 5, but nary a lawmaker from either party was present as citizens held sway in the packed room.
"Let's be clear here," said Ritchie Eppink, turning to the few dozen who spent some of their Saturday afternoon learning about their rights at the Capitol. "You're the majority."
Eppink should know. He represents majority and minority interests as legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho (BW, Citizen, "Ritchie Eppink," July 4, 2012).
"The rules that we're going to talk about today are the rights of the people in their own statehouse," he said. "And that's why we're in the majority room."
ACLU Idaho's Know Your Rights training (another session is set for Thursday, Jan. 10 at 6 p.m.) came as a response to robust citizen activity during the Idaho Legislature's 2012 session: the burgeoning Occupy Boise encampment, Post-It notes left around the Statehouse by Add the Words advocates, and even live ultrasound procedures performed in a committee room. Coupled with increasing protests on the Capitol steps, officials with the Idaho Department of Administration pushed back with a new set of rules detailing what's allowed and what's not at the Statehouse and across the Capitol Mall.
"We've been getting quite a few phone calls at the ACLU office from the members of the public wanting to know what they could or couldn't do with these new rules," ACLU Idaho Executive Director Monica Hopkins told Boise Weekly. "Look at the last session. The amount of public participation was incredible. Our training can help show the parameters of that participation."
The Jan. 5 gathering--a healthy mix of working-class, retiree and student activists--even included a 10-year-old girl, hugging her salmon-colored teddy bear. She sat patiently for the better part of an hour with her father.
"What's the No. 1 rule?" Eppink quizzed the crowd.
"Don't talk?" asked a timid attendee to a roomful of laughter.
"No," said Eppink. "The No. 1 rule is that there shall be no law infringing the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly or the right to petition for addressing your grievances. And we're also provided further protections in our Idaho Constitution that we have the right to consult together for the common good and to instruct our representatives. Those are the rules, no matter what this state does."
The attendees, almost all of them feverishly taking notes, couldn't write fast enough. Eppink waited a moment for his words to sink in.
"The state does not get to re-write the First Amendment, even if it wanted to," he said.
Referencing a large screen filling one end of the meeting room, Eppink pointed to a series of projected images.
"Here's the Occupy Boise protest that took place for months last year in front of the Capitol Annex building across the street from the Statehouse," said Eppink. Here's another picture of an Add the Words demonstration."
Eppink was referring to the 2012 effort to encourage Idaho lawmakers to add the words "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to Idaho's human-rights protections. At the height of last year's Statehouse debate, advocates launched a Post-it Note campaign, placing hundreds of multi-colored squares--each saying "Add the Words"--on desks, doors and walls throughout the Capitol.
But the Department of Administration's new rules forbid such an exercise in 2013.
"You can't affix signs to walls or windows," said Eppink, reading a laundry list of the new rules. "You have to remain 15 feet away from walls and windows. You can't use sidewalk chalk. Security can search your bags or items. But you have a right not to consent to a search; that's a right under the Constitution."
Breaking the rules won't land anyone in jail, but violators can expect to be ticketed for an infraction--not unlike a speeding ticket--which could result in a $100 fine.
"That's not to say you conceivably couldn't be arrested for doing something else while you're breaking he rules," said Eppink. "But for simply breaking the rules, they can only give you a ticket and that's $100."
Eppink said the ACLU is anxious to challenge many of the new rules, especially those that he considered to be "over the top."
"We're expecting these rules to be coming up in a public hearing and final vote in the first few weeks of this year's session," said Eppink.
Hopkins said Idaho's citizenry needs to keep a close eye on committee agendas so that more of the public can weigh in on the rule-making.
"Having a packed room with a lot of people testifying is really important," she said. "It's part of the public process. If we just apathetically cede to the government, we might as well have a fascist state. Part of understanding your rights is exercising your rights, especially at those times when you feel it might be futile."
Eppink added he had reason to believe that lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle might push back against the new rules.
"There are a lot of new legislators, especially in the House State Affairs Committee, this year," he said. "And I do believe that there is some political will in both parties to look at these rules very carefully. There is serious concern on both the Republican and Democratic sides about whether these rules have gone too far."
But the main topic of conversation at the Know Your Rights training concerned whether formal permission is required to hold a demonstration, protest or press conference on the front steps of the Statehouse.
"You do not need, nor do you ever need, a permit to speak or assemble or protest here," said Eppink. "You can get [a permit], but you never need one."
That said, if opposing demonstrators want the same space on the same day at the same time, the one with a secured permit gets priority.
"On the one day that you absolutely want to be on the front steps of the Capitol Building, that's probably why you would want to get a reservation," said Eppink. "And you have to apply for a permit at least five days in advance."
Eppink walked the group through the permitting process, adding that applicants need not advertise their agenda to state officials.
"You're under no obligation that I'm aware of to explain exactly what you're going to do at your event," he said. "I can't see why it's in your interest to give them more details than you need to in order to get a reservation."
If, on the day of the demonstration, citizens are questioned by Capitol Mall security, Eppink encouraged the group to take detailed notes of the time and location of the kerfuffle and to make certain that the security officers specifically identify the laws that are being enforced.
"For instance, this past legislative session, there was an all-night Add the Words demonstration on the steps of the Statehouse, and the Capitol Mall security told the group that they had to leave by 8 a.m. We have a video of it," Eppink remembered. "When somebody asked security why they had to leave by 8, the security officer said, 'I think it's because the governor comes here at 8 and they don't want you here when the governor shows up.' Well, the ACLU wants to know about something like that."
In fact, ACLU Idaho wants to know about any potential confrontations during the legislative session, setting up a hot line for Idahoans to report complaints if they believe their rights have been infringed upon at the State Capitol.
Both a Treasure Valley local phone number (208-994-3386) and a statewide toll-free number (800-542-4737) will both be forwarded to ACLU Idaho staff 24/7. Citizens will also be able to reach out to ACLU Idaho advocates at acluidaho.org/legislative/yourstatehouse.
"We're in the heart of the state government here, both symbolic and operative," said Eppink, pointing to the floor of the Idaho House, just feet away from the Majority Caucus Room. "The attorney general is in this building; the Governor's Office is here, the secretary of state, all in this building. This is the place."
While Eppink spoke, a Capitol Mall security guard--making his rounds through the Statehouse--paced just outside out the meeting room. It was the guard's third visit in about an hour. And while security will be keeping a close eye on the 2013 legislative session, ACLU Idaho wants citizens to know that they'll be watching, too.