Lawmakers spent close to two hours this morning debating new rules written to govern public access to the Idaho State Capitol and other buildings on Capitol Mall property, written by Idaho Department of Administration staff.
While the Senate State Affairs Committee meeting did not include public testimony, Monica Hopkins, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, was asked to weigh in on concerns the rules would limit First Amendment free-speech protections.
Hopkins deferred to Ritchie Eppink, legal director of ACLU Idaho.
"The rules, in our view, go far beyond the kind of government restrictions that are necessary or appropriate, particularly when we're dealing with core constitutional rights," Eppink told the committee.
After lawmakers asked Eppink to point to specific portions of the rules, he outlined restrictions on acceptable hours, location of protests and events on Capitol property, the number of consecutive days an event may take place, and the permitting process for use of the building's front steps.
Committee members were reluctant to approve the entirety of the department's requests, but were split by party on how to proceed. Republicans offered a motion to approve portions of the rules, excepting sections 201, 313 and all but paragraph E of section 302. But Democrats offered an alternative motion to reject the rules entirely, and return to having the department manage its procedures internally.
"While we could fall back to those, we would again be in a position where we have no authority to enforce policies or guidelines," said Teresa Luna, Department of Administration director.
"I know that in the past, we haven’t had mass confusion, chaos, and disaster on the capitol grounds based on the fact that your policies and rules and guidelines weren't in effect," said Boise Democrat Sen. Eliot Werk.
Ketchum Democrat Sen. Michelle Stennet seconded the alternative motion, which ultimately failed on a voice vote. The original motion passed, approving the rules with aforementioned exceptions.
In particular, the Republican majority voted to instruct the Department of Administration to eliminate its proposed restrictions of ongoing demonstrations to no more than seven consecutive days. In short, lawmakers preferred that the length of ongoing demonstrations be open-ended. Additionally, committee members asked the Department of Administration to rewrite its restrictions on obtaining a permit for a demonstration on the Capitol Steps. As originally written, the Dept. of Administration wanted to restrict permitted demonstrations to four hours. But lawmakers wanted the new rule to reflect that a demonstration could remain beyond the four hours if it did not conflict with another demonstration that was reserved. A third change involved demonstrations conflicting with maintenance to the grounds around the Capitol Mall. Originally, the Department of Administration noted that demonstrations could not occur if they conflicted with maintenance to the grounds around the Capitol Mall and that a regular schedule of maintenance would be posted publicly. But lawmakers opted to remove the entire section of the rules - Section 302, sub-section E - dealing with maintenance conflicts.