Lawsuit challenges Kansas policy on banners

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A blanket ban on signs and restrictive permits for protests at the Kansas Statehouse constitute “an unnecessary and impermissible prior restraint on political expression at the core of First Amendment expression,” according to a federal lawsuit filed Thursday.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas challenged the state’s application process for demonstrations inside the Statehouse building, or on its 20 acres, that’s subject to the “standardless discretion” of Kansas officials and requires persons to first find a legislator willing to endorse their message.

It also challenged rules that prohibit people from bringing any signs, even small handheld ones, into the Statehouse. Violators are subject to expulsion.

“We’re arguing that the Statehouse should not impose arbitrary and unnecessary restrictions that suppress political expression,” Lauren Bonds, interim executive director for the ACLU of Kansas, said in a news release. “The building belongs to the people of Kansas and by shutting down speech, the state is preventing our clients from being able to exercise their First Amendment right to petition their government.”

The lawsuit seeks an injunction prohibiting the state enforcing its permit plan for Statehouse demonstrations or its ban on the display of handheld signs. It also wants a court order prohibiting the state from banning people from the Statehouse for violations of the policy.

The litigation stems from an incident last month involving Kansas State University students who hung large banners in the Capitol rotunda saying Republican legislators who oppose expanding Medicaid have “blood on their hands.” The four banners were up for only a few minutes before they were taken down.

Students Jonathan Cole, Katie Sullivan, and Nathaniel Faflick were initially barred from the Statehouse for a year, but that decision was reversed the next day. The ACLU sued on their behalf.

House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a conservative Wichita Republican, said the rule is in place to prevent damage to the Statehouse and does not limit who can hang banners based on what they say. Hawkins was singled out in one of the banners and called the protesters “extremist demonstrators.”

“They just don’t want people just coming up and hanging stuff up anywhere they want,” Hawkins said. “These people just snuck them in and just did it on their own and that’s just not following the right procedures. Follow the procedures, and we don’t have a problem.”

Ashley All, spokeswoman for Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, said they could not comment specifically on the details of pending litigation, but added that “the governor understands the importance of free speech and the need to protect the rights of citizens to participate in their democracy.”

The lawsuit names as defendants Secretary of Administration Duane Goosen, Legislative Administrative Services Director Tom Day and Superintendent of the Kansas Highway Patrol Sherman Jones.

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