(Opinion) — What happens when the public’s business is conducted on private property?
There will be fewer opportunities for the public to assemble peacefully to influence public and legislative opinion during the legislative session this winter. That’s because state lawmakers decided to use the Jonah Business Center in east Cheyenne as their home for the next three years as the Capitol Building is renovated.
It also means business tenants operating in the same private building are given more consideration than the public. In the meantime, citizens have to give up their right to peacefully assemble where their Legislature is considering laws and state government budgets that will affect people’s lives.
The State Building Commission, comprised of the state’s five elected officials and chaired by the governor, is scheduled to consider a temporary facility-use policy for the Jonah Business Center that was approved by a legislative committee last week. The commission will meet at 8 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 13, in room B-63 of the Herschler Building.
The state already signed the lease and has no alternative venue for the upcoming budget session that begins Feb. 8. Wyoming lawmakers and state officials are about to pass a policy that essentially says the public can’t exercise its constitutional rights because it could inconvenience private tenants that share space with the Legislature.
Before the Building Commission votes on its temporary facility-use policy this week, however, it should consider the effects of its decision and whether it will violate the First Amendment.
In one sentence, the First Amendment establishes and protects many rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
People have the inherent right to protest; it’s one of the foundations of the United States, which was created to prohibit the British government from tyrannical oppression of its colonists. The right to petition government for a redress of grievances is so important that our Founding Fathers decided to give it equal weight with the freedom of religion, speech and the press.
The only requirement is that people must “peaceably” assemble, which makes sense and protects everyone’s safety. There’s no mention in the Constitution about abridging this right if it would upset private businesses, or if space is limited.
As Wyoming Tribune Eagle reporter Trevor Brown noted in his excellent coverage of this issue, there are no Capitol steps at the business center for groups to rally and advocate for their beliefs. There is no rotunda or underground space that connects to another state office building, which historically have also been used for protests.
“This will force many of the protests or rallies outside to a grassy area northeast of the building,” Brown wrote. “It is bordered by Pershing Boulevard, the private driveway leading to the parking lot and a sidewalk that runs parallel to the building.”
The grassy area is not exactly a location that will make protests highly visible to legislators — the target audience of groups trying to influence public policy. Perhaps some lawmakers prefer it this way. They won’t have to deal with, or be reminded about, people at odds with their decisions.
Individuals and groups that advocate positions lawmakers disagree with can still flood their message boxes with calls or send batches of emails, but these are just inconveniences for many legislators. They can ignore the individual calls and simply hit the delete button on their laptops. But they can’t wipe out the sight of a few hundred protesters outside — especially if the media is broadcasting the scene to a much larger statewide and national audience.
If there’s snow on the ground, which is likely in Cheyenne during February, the state will restrict the number of people allowed outside and inside the business center, further limiting the rights of people to participate in the political process through protest.
When the Legislature opens its budget session Feb. 8 at the Jonah Business Center it will become the de facto Capitol Building. That status should come with certain obligations to ensure that people can have a direct voice in state government.
I can already hear some of the reasons offered for the commission to approve the policy:
It’s only for three years.
That’s the sacrifice we have to make for using private facilities.
The building’s other tenants have rights, too.
But three years is a long time in the legislative process, and a lot can happen. Legislators shouldn’t operate in a vacuum that shields them from public criticism or reduces public input. The use of private facilities and its usurpation of people’s constitutional rights is something the state of Wyoming should have considered before it signed a lease with the business center.
The upcoming budget session could elicit more protests than usual. Two controversial issues that come to mind are Medicaid expansion and the legalization of medical marijuana.
Lawmakers will decide whether to reintroduce Medicaid expansion bills. They have rejected expansion proposals each of the past three years despite growing public support of such action. People have the right to make their cases for or against the proposal through public protests wherever the Legislature is operating. The same is true of medical marijuana, which is the subject of a petition to put the issue on the ballot.
If history is any guide, issues such as abortion rights, gun rights, and collective bargaining rights will also draw demonstrations in the next three years. If a large group of oilfield workers wants to show up in person to tell legislators they want stiffer penalties for employers who violate worker safety regulations, why should their rights be infringed because of private business concerns, or a lack of protest space?
Carrie Satterwhite, spokeswoman for the Wyoming chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, justifiably told Wyoming Tribune Eagle reporter Brown she is concerned that the proposed temporary facility-use policy could be unconstitutional.
“(The state) should have been aware there are groups that might want to protest and, in choosing a venue, they should’ve taken that into consideration,” she said. “We have the right to assemble and speak our piece.”
That’s the American way. But I fear the state is likely to do what has, too often, become the Wyoming way: Concede that an issue wasn’t handled as well as it should have been, but adopt bad, possibly illegal, policy anyway.
Time limitations may necessitate using the private business center this year, but state officials and the Legislature have plenty of time in 2016 to find a public building that could host the Legislature the next two years, even if some remodeling of a facility has to be done to accommodate it.
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