Senate committee rejects some proposed rules for Capitol Mall gatherings

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Sen. Michelle Stennett listens to testimony about Capitol Mall gatherings.

After nearly 90 minutes of at times contentious debate, the Senate State Affairs Committee Wednesday voted to amend some of the Department of Administration’s rules that regulate the time period of protests and rallies at state facilities, and prohibit 24-hour events.

“I wish we had allowed the Department of Administration more time to do what they needed to do last year,” said Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls. “It’s remarkable they were able to do what they did, and by no means do I wish to demean those who work at the department or its director as we make these decisions.”

“Occupy Boise came and went,” noted Richard Eppick, attorney with the ACLU and previously legal counsel to the Occupy Boise movement, when speaking to the committee. “But these rules have quite a chilling implication for free speech. I trust the court that they will figure out the ‘cans,’ in terms of what the government ‘can’ do, but it is up to this committee to determine what the government ‘should’ do.”

Concerns emerged among the committee members over the times and durations that groups and individuals are permitted to gather and demonstrate in the Capitol Mall area, and the fact that groups that seek permits are provided audio amplification equipment by the state, while those without official permits don’t receive amplification.

The committee voted to strike the regulations on time periods and durations of demonstrations, and the rules regarding audio amplification equipment.

“I’m troubled by some of the time constraints that we impose,” Davis noted. “I may want to participate in an around-the-clock faith vigil, for example, but as it stands, I cannot.”

During a question-and-answer period with Eppick, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, asked Eppick if he had recently been involved in a meeting at the Capitol; did he intentionally encourage meeting participants to break rules so they would then be challenged; and did he encourage people to bring guns to the Capitol.

Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, interjected and asked why Hill’s line of questioning was relevant to the rules discussion.

“It is relevant in that I want to get a better understanding as to what Mr. Eppick believes are reasonable rules at the Capitol,” Hill stated.

In response to Hill’s questions, Eppick acknowledged that he had recently spoken at a “Know Your Rights” event held by the ACLU at the Capitol, that he had not encouraged rule breaking and that he referred participants to “Idaho law” regarding guns at the Capitol.

Teresa Luna, director of the Department of Administration, told the committee that “we have done the best that we can in establishing these rules,” and made frequent references to department rules for the Capitol Mall that dated back to 1992.

“If your department already had rules in place that dated back several years, then why are we here? And why are we discussing the new rules that were developed just last year?” Luna was asked.

She replied that the Legislature required new rules of her department last year.

Hill noted to Luna that “we have to have rules, because there will always be people who overstep their bounds, but our decisions today are not a negative reflection on the Department of Administration.”

“I mean no disrespect to the department either,” Stennett noted. “Whether people are gathering to pray, or veterans are gathering to speak out about their military benefits, or whatever it is, we must safeguard the right to speak freely.”

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