Question of the Month: Rules on protests at state capitols in the Midwest
Question: What are Midwestern states’ rules regarding protests and demonstrations in capitol buildings?
Answer: Over the past two years, state capitols in the Midwest have become hotbeds of political protest as lawmakers have debated highly contentious issues.
In early 2011, protesters gathered at the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison during the debate of a bill to, among other things, reduce collective bargaining rights of state employees. The Capitol became a gathering place for protesters at other times during the year as well — such as when the collective-bargaining legislation made its way through the court system and as a handful of legislators faced recall elections. (Bills regarding labor policy have also sparked demonstrations in the Indiana and Ohio capitols during the past year.)
One result of all the activity was a call for new rules on public access to Wisconsin’s public facilities. Those rules, adopted in December by the Wisconsin Department of Administration, now require groups of four or more people inside the Capitol, and groups of 100 or more outside the Capitol, to obtain permits for their event. Those permits must be secured at least 72 hours in advance. “Events” include rallies, presentations and ceremonies. Families visiting the Capitol and constituents visiting state officials are not required to obtain permits. And the policy does not apply to “spontaneous” gatherings in response to an event happening within the previous week.
Under the new rules, the state can also charge groups in order to cover the cost of additional Capitol police officers (or overtime for officers on duty) if these officers need to intervene during the event. Groups may also be compelled to reimburse the state for any damage caused to the Capitol.
In early 2011, proposed limits on the number of people who can gather in Indiana’s Capitol drew fire from policymakers and citizens alike. The rules, written in part by the Indiana State Police and supported by Gov. Mitch Daniels, would have limited the number of people in the Statehouse to 3,000 (including about 1,700 state employees). Daniels cited concerns about safety, but critics said the rules were meant to limit the number of protesters opposing “right-to-work” legislation being considered by the Indiana General Assembly. Daniels ultimately abandoned pursuit of the proposed rule changes.
CSG Midwest recently surveyed state officials around the Midwest about occupancy restrictions in their capitol buildings.
In general, most Midwestern state governments limit the number of people in a capitol building based on fire code and to protect public safety. But some states in this region have more-stringent rules about rallies and demonstrations than others.
In Nebraska, rallies and protests are not permitted inside the Capitol and are limited to the outside of the building.
Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio and South Dakota are among the states that require permits for rallies or demonstrations. Ohio specifically defines a rally as two or more people passing out literature or gathering to demonstrate; rallies are not allowed inside the building.
In Iowa, groups must submit an event request to gather. The director of administrative services can deny the request if public safety is at risk — but he or she cannot infringe on the right of assembly. Demonstrations are not allowed in the House or Senate galleries.
Other states have specific rules of conduct for gatherings in the capitol building. In Kansas and Michigan, for example, an event cannot disrupt state business. Many states, including Iowa, Kansas, Michigan and Minnesota, do not allow signs on sticks.