There’s a place where the constitutional protection of free speech bumps up against polite or at least orderly conduct that is now in the process of being sorted out in a federal court in Topeka.

The issue is that American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the folks who manage the Statehouse and just what is permitted and not permitted inside its halls where lawmakers consider issues ranging from expanding Medicaid to Kansans and, well, to whether you can ride your all-terrain vehicle across a federal highway.

That’s a broad range of topics, and there are different levels of emotion by supporters on the issues. But the federal district court case appears to be more narrowly focused on signs in the Statehouse and whether the four 10-foot by 24-foot banners urging expansion of Medicaid in Kansas are a little too big, and whether just an 8½-inch by 11-inch piece of paper with a message on it is too small.

The First Amendment doesn’t talk about sizes. It talks about freedom to express one’s opinions. Haven’t found the American yet who opposes freedom of speech; just how that speech is delivered.

The issue gets complicated in the Statehouse, a grand and well-preserved historic governmental headquarters for Kansans that deserves protection. Can’t think of anyone except maybe maintenance contractors who want people to express their opinions by nailing signs on the walls of the Statehouse. Carrying signs? That’s a pretty good way to express one’s opinions, especially in the building where state law is created.

The banners incident that fostered the lawsuit? Three Kansas State University students unfurled banners in the Statehouse rotunda blasting legislative leaders (Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, and House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita) for stymieing passage of a bill law that would expand KanCare for poor Kansans. “Blood on their hands” was the key phrase on the banners. That’s a politically ingenious way to draw the issue, with a catchy phrase that got the protesters and their opinions on television, in the newspapers and probably all over the internet.

But the banners were removed from the Statehouse rotunda by state workers because they didn’t meet Statehouse rules for such signage. Too big. No official approval for the size or placement of the banners, and, well, they were disruptive.

It fell a dab short of the shouting “fire” in a theater, but it was disruptive.

And while there’s a First Amendment and the need for an orderly and safe operation of the Statehouse, there’s something in the middle. Conservative legislative leaders would rather not see signs, and certainly not banners, in the Statehouse. The ACLU? It’s apparently willing to settle for something considerably smaller than the banners, but large enough that they can, if phrased catchily, still express a clear statement of opinion that lawmakers can read from a few feet away, or maybe even across the rotunda.

The other recent free-speech issues? Singing from the Senate balcony? Ordering reporters off the Senate floor (and threatening to revoke their Senate press credentials) after they’ve gotten their photos and quotes from protesters? A little more difficult, and probably something that will be settled not in court, but by legislative leadership, which dreams up the rules for conduct in its chambers.

What’s next? We’re thinking back to those airport frames, the ones that determine whether you can carry on a bag or have to have it checked into the baggage cart. Something like “if your sign fits through this frame (unfolded), you can carry it into the Statehouse.”

Free speech? Yes, just a dab smaller ...

 

— Syndicated by Hawver News Company LLC of Topeka. Martin Hawver is publisher of Hawver's Capitol Report — to learn more about this nonpartisan statewide political news service, visit the website at www.hawvernews.com.