More than perhaps any other public facility the Legislative Building and Capitol are symbols of our government at work. While everyone owns them, no person or group has permanent rights to them. Following l ast year’s demonstrations and arrests a group of ten lawmakers hastily revised rules for the Legislative Building, sometimes dubbed “The People’s House,” but their actions neither satisfied nor did much to clarify the use of this most public building.
Legislative staffers spend more time in the legislature than anyone and from their first day on the job they understand they are likely to encounter people wandering through the building, many of them lost in the confusing layout. Even when tasked with detailed research, complicated computations or document drafting these staffers must accept and accommodate visitors.
Sometimes lawmakers forget they are only temporary tenants for a season – for some it is many seasons – and while they are there to conduct business it is the people’s business they are conducting. Sometimes the people get in the way, confusing what is often a disjointed and hectic pace, but this is the price we pay for a participatory government.
Certainly professional lobbyists, the media, school groups, local trade and professional groups and those wanting to participate in the democratic process have every right to attend hearings, meet with legislators and sit though legislative sessions.
We believe in the right of peaceable assembly, especially on Jones Street but, just as discourteous and disruptive guests in someone’s home would be asked to leave, the same should be the case in the “people’s house.”
The 18th Century philosopher Voltaire observed that common sense is not so common and that would appear the case regarding the establishment of rules of conduct in our assembly. At issue is a common sense definition of the word “disruptive.” Let’s give it a try.
Common sense would dictate that visitors not be allowed on the floor of the chambers when either house is in session. Visitors should not be allowed when the building is considered closed. We need to ensure the safety of those who work in or visit the building. For security purposes it is acceptable to limit very large crowds from gathering in front of or inside the Legislative Building, but great care should be exercised in that determination.
Because of the unique building design acoustics in public areas often make it difficult to communicate, therefore if visitors create noise that prevents normal conversations from occurring, if they block passageways, are abusive to or infringe on the rights of others or are security threats they should be asked to cease those practices and their failure to do so should be cause to be asked to leave the premises.
Force or arrests in their removal should be a last resort. Dismissing or removing people who are assembling peaceably simply because some don’t agree with or don’t like them is not grounds for their dispersal or removal and is a distasteful and arrogant abuse of authority.
Mutual respect, common courtesy and common sense should be all that’s needed. While it might be tempting for some to think they have more rights than others in public buildings the truth is that we are all visitors.
Campbell is the executive producer and moderator of NC SPIN, a weekly panel discussion on state issues that airs on WMYT “MY TV12” at 10 a.m. on Sundays and on WJZY “CW46” at 6:30 a.m. and 11:05 p.m. on Sundays. You can also visit www.ncspin.com and click on the “Watch NC SPIN Online Anytime” button for streaming. Each week’s show is posted on Friday.