Earlier this month, the State Assembly and Senate passed new rules for acceptable behavior in the Capitol gallery that prevent people from recording in any way the actions on the Assembly floor. Republicans were able to move the new rules through without support from Democrats.
There were a couple other additional restrictions added, such as no wearing hats or displaying signs or placards, but it seems the central thrust of the updated rules is to prevent the recording of state legislative discussions and that is a problem.
For a state with such a great history of open record laws and transparency, it is certainly concerning that at a time when it should be easier than ever for a responsible citizen to record and distribute the actions of our politicians, it is in fact being outlawed.
I wouldn’t have anything against adjusting the rules of decorum in the gallery in general. I have never been a supporter of the people who do the sing-a-longs every day at the Capitol or the people who have yelled over legislative meetings in the past. It negatively affects the discourse and ideal of the Capitol. The Capitol is not supposed to be a place where you shout and yell and do whatever you want. It is a more important place than that – you don’t go to a church and yell at the pastor in the middle of his service and you don’t go to the Capitol and yell at a politician in the middle of a legislative session.
So I’m disappointed an opportunity to pass new rules wasn’t more focused on reaffirming this building’s hugely symbolic meaning to everyone in the State of Wisconsin and shouldn’t be abused by any one group as a constant base of disrespectful noise.
Instead, we get this language about no recording. Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, told the Wisconsin State Journal, “The goal of having the gallery there is to allow any citizen to observe, but unfortunately during the course of the last two years, far too many observers became participants.”
I completely agree with the speaker on those points. But if the goal is to allow observation, why are the majority of the new rules prohibitive against the recording of those observations?
Now if someone were running around the Capitol harassing individual lawmakers while sticking a recording device in their face hoping to get some kind of negative reaction that they can make a YouTube video out of, that is different. But it should be pretty easy for the rules to distinguish between merely recording a legislative action and harassment.
If you want to go to the Capitol to observe the actions of your government you should be able to do so in any way you want. If you go to the Capitol to be the action, there should be clear limits as to what you can do to prevent disruption, and you should be held accountable if you exceed those limits.
I’m very much in support of rules that return the Capitol to a level of decorum and respect that was commonplace before the passage of the budget repair bill. But using that as an excuse to prevent people from recording and sharing what happens on the Assembly floor is wrong. Lawmakers deserve to work in the Capitol without being harassed and the people deserve to observe them at that work however they see fit.
John Waters (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in journalism.