The state Senate and Assembly have taken on a tough task - balancing decorum with the rights of citizens to see their government in action.
Last week and this, both houses passed rules that govern the actions of spectators in the gallery. Under the rules, we must sit there, hatless, and do nothing but watch and listen. No recording devices are allowed. We are without the comfort and security of our beckoning mobile devices.
The rules were spurred by the protests that took place in the last session of the Legislature after Gov. Scott Walker proposed sweeping budget changes to state funding as well as a budget repair bill that ended collective bargaining for most state employees.
These were huge changes that sparked demonstrations and tens of thousands of protesters descended on the State Capitol and its grounds in Madison. When the governor's budget repair bill and state budget came up for discussion, protesters filled the gallery, as you might expect. Their passion spilled over into shouting and bad behavior, and some spectators were removed from the gallery and cited for disorderly conduct.
It's not certain that we'll see that sort of behavior again. But to prevent it, the Assembly converted its gallery guidelines into rules. In part, the rules state that spectators in the gallery "may not engage in any conduct that expresses or that may be considered to express support for or opposition to any matter before the assembly or that may come before the assembly and may not use any audio or video device to record, photograph, film, videotape, or in any way depict the proceedings on or about the assembly floor."
Visitors also may not use a laptop or other computer device, stand except for prayer or the pledge of allegiance, use any recording devices, use cell phones or pagers, read newspapers or other printed materials, eat any food or drink any beverages, have bags or briefcases, wear hats.
The Senate this week adopted similar rules. Some of them had already been in place - such as banning use of cellphones and pagers - but new stipulations included the sitting-still-and-keeping-quiet rule.
In addition, both the Assembly and Senate included provisions that could bar third-time offenders from the gallery for the rest of the session. Remember, legislative sessions run two years.
While we agree that legislators should be safe and visitors in the gallery should exercise decorum and allow the Assembly and Senate proceedings to progress, ratcheting up these rules and treating citizens like children (sit up straight and be quiet) moves beyond what is reasonable.
Sometimes the democratic process is messy. Legislators should be aware that there are issues that generate a passionate response by a great many people. Silencing all dissent through restrictive rules isn't the answer.
The answer is somewhere between what occurred last session and the new rules. Like we said, it's a tough balancing act, but we should ensure transparency in the houses of our Legislature and we should be reasonable in our expectations of those in the gallery.
Both the Assembly and Senate should be prepared to change the rules should they prove to be too restrictive.