An animal rights group which forced the issue of the right to political protest during the 2006 legislative session by filing a federal suit is back.
Members of the Utah Animal Rights Coalition sued the state two years ago over capitol security violating their First Amendment right when they were stopped from handing out political leaflets. The state settled with the group, giving them about $12,000 and acknowledging that the two UARC members had a legal right to engage in free expression activity, such as "tendering leaflets, fliers, buttons or similar materials on the ground and in public areas of the Utah State Capitol and related buildings."
The suit prompted the Capitol Preservation Board to revamp its speech policies and in October 2006 it adopted two sets of rules for free speech and petitioning.
This time the issue is about holding political signs.
According to a new suit filed in U.S. District Court on Friday, the coalition states two members were removed from the capitol's third floor for holding a "spontaneous protest" in which they held signs regarding animal rights issues.
The suit states that last Wednesday, the two members of the coalition were standing outside the doors to the House of Representatives when they were approached by two Utah Highway Patrol troopers, who provide security for the capitol.
The two troopers ordered the protesters to cease their demonstration and threatened them with citation, arrest or banishing them from ever returning to the capitol. They were told by both troopers and representatives of the Capitol Preservation Board that they needed a permit to protest, according to the suit.
"People in the area near where the plaintiffs stood were talking to others as well as to state legislators and state employees," the suit states. "Members of the public in the area were exchanging information, handing papers to interested people, etc. People in the area were petitioning government and engaging in free expression activities."
UARC attorney Brain Barnard said capitol security does not appear to be following its rules and said capitol officials must encourage free speech as the capitol is the seat of government.
Barnard had harsh words for security and indicated members of the Utah Legislature are only interested in granting free speech to a select few.
"The green-coated security folks, the Capitol Preservation Board and the UHP in dress uniforms at the Capitol are enamored with their own power," Barnard said. "Legislators will talk to lobbyists in expensive three piece suits, but do not want to see nor hear 'the great unwashed' nor the plebeians who use posters and protests to communicate."
Barnard is asking a federal judge to grant the coalition an immediate temporary restraining order to allow protests during the last few days of the legislative session.The coalition has been pushing for tougher penalties for people who engage in egregious acts of animal torture elevating the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony. Utah is one of only a handful of states in the country that lacks a felony provision for animal cruelty.
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