By Kent Willis, Executive DirectorThe Virginia State Capitol is three blocks from our office in downtown Richmond. If you don’t know it, you ought to pay a visit. You’ll be struck by Jefferson’s perfectly classical dome, especially the way it shimmers in the sun on a winter’s day. In those moments, it seems to convey exactly what Jefferson intended—a rock solid base that exudes stability holding up an arc that hovers loftily in the sky, like the ideals on which our nation was built.
You’ll also notice the grounds, which are set on a sprawling grassy oasis that gently slopes toward the James River. The setting feels more like a park than the courtyard of a government building, and downtown workers take advantage of it in the spring and fall to gather for lunch.
On a walk earlier this week, it was hard to imagine the scene there only a couple of weeks ago, when a state SWAT team, dressed like so many Darth Vaders, dragged away 31 peaceful reproductive rights protestors sitting in a corner of the grand steps to the Capitol.
Much has been written about the military style overreaction of the police, and many questions have been raised about the fact that large numbers of people gather all the time on the grounds and steps without being harassed or arrested. There are legitimate concerns about the use of unnecessary force and the unequal application of the rules. In fact, the ACLU is currently interviewing protestors to determine precisely what happened to each of them.
But I want to address another issue, which is the overly restrictive rules for use of the Capitol grounds by protestors.
Although hundreds of people gather at the Capitol every day-- especially during session, when the number may approach a 1,000 -- those who want to organize a demonstration, even a silent one, must apply to the Capitol’s Division of Engineering and Building for a permit, and they are only allowed to assemble at the Bell Tower.
Again, for those who don’t know the Capitol grounds, the Bell Tower is in what must be the farthest corner of the grounds, on the opposite side and out of sight from the General Assembly Building where legislators have their offices and conduct committee meetings.
The First Amendment guarantees the right to assemble in public places, except that the government has the authority to impose “reasonable time, place and manner restrictions” on such gatherings to protect public safety. “Reasonable” is a relative term, of course, whose meaning may change based on the number of people who want to gather and the size of the space available to them.
But we at the ACLU can find nothing reasonable about relegating peaceful protestors to a far corner of Capitol Square that sharply diminishes their ability to communicate their message to the state’s elected officials.
It is time for the legislators to revisit the rules for organized protests at the Capitol, and they should start the review process sooner rather than later. We’ll be urging them to do just that.
At the same time, we’ll also be looking closely at making an argument that the restrictions are legally unreasonable and therefore unconstitutional.