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Wisconsin Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca was railing against Assembly Republicans during an interview on Feb. 19, 2013.
"Step by step by step, they're dismantling people's involvement in their democracy. And I think it's wrong," the Kenosha Democrat told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board.
Then Barca made a startling claim about rules in the Assembly gallery, where the general public can watch the Assembly in action.
"You can't bring an iPad or a piece of paper and a pencil in the gallery to take notes of what's going on. That's outrageous," he charged. "But, yet you can bring a gun up there. It doesn't even equate. You can exercise your Second Amendment rights, but not your First Amendment rights."
So, citizens who want to observe their elected representatives at the state Capitol can bring a firearm into the Assembly gallery -- but not an iPad or a pencil and paper?
Was Barca going ballistic?
Let's lock and load the Truth-O-Meter.
In January 2013, about a month before Barca made his claim, he and GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos announced they had agreed on new operating procedures for the Legislature's lower chamber.
Most any bipartisan agreement would be news, given that Republicans control the Assembly and Senate and hold the governor’s office.
In an effort to avoid all-night sessions, the two Assembly leaders said they would meet before each Assembly session to set time limits on debate for each bill. And they'd use a time clock for each speech.
But separate from the bipartisan deal, the Republican majority in the Assembly adopted stricter rules on members of the public in the Assembly's overhead viewing galleries. No recording devices, signs or hats would be allowed, the Journal Sentinel reported.
And remaining in place from the 2011-2012 legislative session was a provision allowing people with a valid permit to carry concealed weapons in the Assembly gallery.
(The Senate, by the way, prohibits guns -- as well as laptops, still photography and video or audio recordings -- in its gallery.)
The Assembly’s new prohibitions on recording devices were decried by Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. He noted in an opinion article that the Open Meetings Law passed by the Legislature in 1977 directs all state and local governmental bodies in Wisconsin to "make a reasonable effort to accommodate any person desiring to record, film or photograph the meeting," so long as this does not cause disruption.
How common are these various restrictions in public galleries in legislative chambers?
Angela Andrews of the National Conference of State Legislatures told us she was not aware of any state legislative body that prohibits pencils and paper, and not aware of any that prohibits audio and video recording devices. Fewer than 10 state capitol buildings allow guns, she said.
So, it’s clear Barca is correct in saying guns are allowed in the audience gallery of the Assembly; no change has been made since that rule took effect in the previous legislative session.
But what about the other two parts of his claim?
Check two portions of the Legislative Reference Bureau’s summary of Assembly Resolution 4, the new rules adopted by the GOP majority in January 2013:
"No individual may do any of the following in the visitor galleries: lean over or put any object over the balcony; use a laptop or other computer device; stand except for prayer or pledge of allegiance or as otherwise permitted by the presiding officer; use recording devices of any kind; use cell phones or pagers …."
The laptop or computer device part pretty clearly prohibits the iPad, Apple’s mobile computing device, in the Assembly gallery.
"No individual in the visitor galleries may use any audio or video device to record, photograph, film, videotape, or in any way depict the proceedings on or about the Assembly floor."
That’s an explicit ban on devices, but there’s no reference to jotting notes.
Barca spokeswoman Melanie Conklin told us that Barca’s key point in making his claim was that "there is a lengthy list of items and behaviors – many of them not remotely disruptive – that are banned in the gallery or were discussed in meetings and in the floor speeches as being disruptive, while a visitor can bring a weapon into the gallery with no repercussions."
Kit Beyer, spokeswoman for GOP speaker Vos, told us of the new rules: "Nowhere does it say that an observer in the gallery cannot have a piece of paper or a pencil."
Aiming for clarity on the pencil and paper question, we checked with experts.
Madison attorney Christa Westerberg, vice president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said it’s not clear that the new rules would prohibit a pencil and paper in the gallery for taking notes.
Chris Ahmuty, the non-lawyer executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, said he has concerns about the new gallery rules but doesn’t think they prohibit a pencil and paper.
But Madison media lawyer Robert Dreps had a different take. He said it’s possible to construe a pencil as a recording device.
More importantly, nobody but the Assembly can say what its rules actually mean.
"Because it’s a legislative rule, it means, ultimately, what the Legislature says it means," Dreps said.
Barca claimed: "You can't bring an iPad or a piece of paper and a pencil in the (Assembly) gallery to take notes of what's going on," but "you can bring a gun up there."
He is right that the Assembly audience gallery allows guns and not iPads, but it’s debatable at best whether he’s right that Assembly rules prohibit a pencil and paper.
We rate Barca’s statement Mostly True.
Interview, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board session with Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca and Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, Feb. 19, 2013
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Assembly leaders agree to limit overnight debates, install time clock," Jan. 10, 2013
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Calling Scott Walker a 'liar' is one thing, but new rules go too far," Feb. 4, 2013
Wisconsin Senate, gallery rules
Email interview, Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca spokeswoman Melanie Conklin, Feb. 21, 2013
Wisconsin Assembly, Assembly Resolution 4
Interview, American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin executive director Chris Ahmuty, Feb. 21, 2013
Interview, Madison attorney Robert Dreps, Feb. 21, 2013
Email interview, Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council vice president and attorney Christa Westerberg, Feb. 21, 2013
Interview, National Conference of State Legislatures senior policy specialist Angela Andrews, Feb. 21, 2013
Email interview, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos communications director Kit Beyer, Feb. 21, 2013
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