It is probably not surprising given the protests and hullabaloo that enveloped the state Capitol in the past two years in the fight over collective bargaining that legislators put on a push for more decorum in the Assembly and Senate galleries.
Sadly, it’s probably not too surprising that they overreached when they did so.
Over the objections of Democrats, Assembly Republicans recently adopted new rules for spectator behavior in the galleries overlooking the Assembly floor.
And they made some new rules for their own decorum as well — instituting a dress code for lawmakers that requires female representatives to dress appropriately and male legislators to wear a coat and tie. Otherwise they will not be allowed to participate in debate.
The dress code is their own prerogative and if they think dressing up will result in better behavior on the floor — go for it.
Many of the rules for spectators are based in common sense and civility as well. Better behavior in the galleries than what we saw in the past two years would be welcome. And we agree with state Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, when he defended the rules saying, “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.”
That, he said, will have consequences — including removal from the galleries for a “prohibited action” for a period of 24 hours. Second violators would be barred from the entire floor session and a third violation would bar the violator from the gallery for an entire session.
The new rule bans a host of things — displaying signs of placards, wearing hats, carrying bags or briefcases, eating food or drinking beverages. Most of them have a basis in common sense, civility or even janitorial concerns. We have no problem with that.
But the rules also bar visitors from using “audio or video devices to record, photograph, film, videotape, or in any way depict the proceedings on or about the Assembly floor.”
What is bothersome with the wording of that rule is it brings the Assembly in direct conflict with Wisconsin’s history of open government. Our Open Meetings Law, which has served the state well for more than four decades, tries to keep government meetings at all levels as transparent as possible by directing governments to “make a reasonable effort to accommodate any person desiring to record, film or photograph the meeting” — as long as it does not disrupt the work of the governmental body.
Under the new Assembly rules, visitors are banned from videotaping, photographing or — in a strict interpretation — even taking notes about what they see happening on the Assembly floor.
If someone journeys to Madison to hear debate on a topic of interest to themselves, their neighbors or their profession they should have every right to quietly record the actions of our lawmakers and take it home to share in their community or put it on the Internet for all to see.
What’s good for all the other governmental gooses in Wisconsin should be good enough for the ganders in the state Assembly. The Assembly should revisit its new rules and focus more narrowly on deportment and not censor the observation and recording of their actions.