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Utah House Bans Posters from Visitor Section

No, seriously.


Utah Highway Patrol trooper Stephen Esplin outside the Utah House gallery on Jan. 24, 2017 - ANNIE KNOX
  • Annie Knox
  • Utah Highway Patrol trooper Stephen Esplin outside the Utah House gallery on Jan. 24, 2017

Anyone wishing to glimpse Utah's House of Representatives at work now has a checkpoint to go through.

A state trooper stationed outside the balcony overlooking the Capitol's west chamber isn't looking for firearms, however. Guns are allowed in. The highway patrol officer is instead searching backpacks and briefcases for two-dimensional contraband: posters and banners.

Spurred by a demonstration in the final moments of last year's legislative session—when Randy Gardner draped over gold railings several images of his convicted brother's body bloodied by execution—the House has barred demonstration materials it believes has the potential to distract and dismay lawmakers, no matter what their message is.

Under the new protocol, "when they're on floortime, there's not posters or signs," says Utah Highway Patrol Captain Barton Blair, "to make sure they can function without being interrupted."

The move came out of an end-of-session meeting Blair and his UHP colleagues have with legislators every year, Blair says, when House leaders asked for the measure.

"They obviously had concerns," after the violent images were displayed, Blair says. House Chief of Staff Greg Hartley could not make Speaker Greg Hughes available on Tuesday.

Free speech experts say the move would be backed by a court if it became the subject of a lawsuit.

David Hudson, an attorney and officer with the First Amendment Center, says the change is a hit to free speech but it's a limit the Legislature has a right to impose.

"Government officials do have greater control over their own space," he says.

The Utah American Civil Liberties Union agrees, noting that legislative galleries overlooking the House and Senate are not considered traditional public forums, ACLU Legal Director John Mejia said in a statement.

But more speech is always better, Mejia points out, and UHP has historically done good job of handling disruptions. So even though the rule applying to all signs is legal, it may be overkill.

"This feels like an overly restrictive policy given the circumstances," he says, "especially since the Senate has declined to institute a similar ban."

The Senate does not allow banners to be unfurled or posters raised in its gallery, but so far has refrained from requiring bags to be checked. Still, that could change.

"We're acutely aware of it and were thinking about it," Ric Cantrell, Senate chief of staff, says.

The issue doesn't doesn't come up often at the Utah Legislature. Few protesters ever enter the balconies filled with lobbyists, journalists and students on field trips, as well as other visitors.

Demonstrations generally take place in the Capitol's rotunda or on its front steps.

Utah's Capitol is far from the first government seat to restrict speech. To protest at the nation's Capitol in Washington, DC, for example, you have to get a permit beforehand.

House Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, says he wasn't made aware of the change before it happened and had mixed feelings about it.

"I don't have a problem with posters up there," he says, but the display in March "freaked people out. It was gruesome."

Anti-death penalty activist Randy Gardner, who shocked King and his colleagues last year after lawmakers declined to take action on a measure that would've put a moratorium on Utah's death penalty, says "they were freaked out. I could tell."

Gardner says his demonstration was "probably the best thing I've done for myself" after his brother was executed by firing squad in 2010 for murdering a lawyer as he attempted to escape from court three decades earlier.

He believes the move educated lawmakers who did not understand how the violent process works and how it affects families of the executed.

"I don't want everyone to see these pictures, Gardner says, "but I do want people voting on it and making laws to see what it is."

Gardner was planning on being arrested at the time, but was detained briefly by UHP. He says he probably won't attempt another similar protest now that it is banned in the House.