New restrictions on free speech activities on Capitol Hill received an unfavorable review at a Monday hearing on the proposed rule.
"Freedom of speech is not something that can be put in a box and made to stand in the corner," said Bill Germundson of the Anti-Hunger Action Committee, the group that originally requested the public hearing.
"There must be a free flow of ideas. The voice of the poor must be heard if we are to have any hope of a compassionate and just society."
The proposed rule, which includes a prohibition on leafletting and other activities at the state complex, was prompted by the filing of two lawsuits following this year's legislative session by advocates for Utah's low-income citizens.
Members of the Capitol Preservation Board have said the rule is necessary to clarify what kind of activities are allowed in what areas of the complex to allow equal enforcement.
"We have wonderful public facilities up here," said Rep. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan. "We want to make sure that those are protected as groups come up here and use the facilities."
But for those who spoke at Monday's nearly two-hour hearing, it appears any restrictions on free speech are a concern.
"I wonder if we have free speech zones, how do we label everything that is not? Does it become a zone of no free speech?" asked Weber State University journalism professor Allison Barlow Hess.
"As a preservation board, I think we should preserve more than the bricks and mortar of the building," she said. "We should preserve the spirit of the building."
Restricting access to Utah lawmakers in any way sends the wrong message, said Gena Edvalson of the Utah Progressive Network.
"These rules make the system, the entire system, look scared of public access," Edvalson said. "Scared of people, citizens, who are not lobbyists. Scared of different points of view."
The proposed free speech rule would apply equally to citizens, advocacy groups and lobbyists, said assistant Attorney General Alan Bachman.
Salt Lake resident Sue Corth agreed that lawmakers should be accessible to their constituents. Navigating the Capitol complex is difficult enough, and people should not face additional hurdles once they get there, Corth said.
"Part of the business of state government is to listen to and interact with the people who put you there," she said. "This is where that interaction should happen, and it can happen."
Though legislators took the brunt of the criticism for the proposed rule, viewed by many as an attempt by lawmakers to insulate themselves from criticism or opinions with which they disagree, the 11-member Capitol Preservation Board is not made up solely of members of the Utah Legislature.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, a member of the board, said Monday he is intent on protecting the civil rights of all Utahns.
"The bottom line is to protect your free speech rights and make sure you have an opportunity to address those who make the laws and enforce the laws," he said.The board will meet two more times, on Oct. 5 and Oct. 10, to discuss the proposed rule, which can be viewed online at www.cpb.state.ut.us. Written comments will be accepted until Oct. 2 at 5 p.m. and can be sent to the Capitol Preservation Board, Room E110 East Building, 420 N. State, Salt Lake City, UT 84114-2110.
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