The Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government has sent a formal complaint to Attorney General Derek Schmidt, objecting to the removal of news media and clearing of the gallery during the sine die session of the Legislature on May 29.
The reporters and spectators were ousted under the orders of Senate President Susan Wagle after a protest broke out involving supporters of Medicaid expansion in Kansas and before law enforcement made arrests.
The coalition, comprised of representatives of the Kansas Press Association, Kansas Association of Broadcasters, League of Women Voters and university law and journalism representatives, said the unprecedented moves violate the chamber’s rules and the Kansas Open Meetings Act.
After news reporters were out of the chamber, police removed the protesters from the gallery and whisked them into a conference room, where they could remain out of sight. Wagle said the protesters were cited with misdemeanor disorderly conduct.
The Senate president ordered the gallery closed, shutting off the only area where the public is allowed to view Senate proceedings.
“We have silenced protesters who violated the law through disorderly misconduct and who interrupted our proceedings,” Wagle said. “We are elected by the people to each have a voice in this chamber, and we should not be disturbed. That’s why the gallery was closed.”
Wagle aide Harrison Hems and a Capitol police officer ordered news reporters to leave the floor about 20 minutes into the demonstration. When reporters declined, Hems threatened to revoke their floor passes. Lawmakers and legislative staff were allowed to remain.
“This is a public space, isn’t it?” a reporter asked. “This is the people’s house.”
“As far as I know,” the officer replied, “this is the Senate’s house.”
Hems said he wanted to evict news reporters because they were giving an audience to the protesters.
“I’m just telling you it’s a privilege to have a press pass, to be on the floor, to document,” Hems said. “When I’m trying to get people out to restore order to the chamber so we can conduct our business and you guys just sit there with a camera in their face and give them an audience, that makes my job incredibly difficult. I’m not trying to silence the press.”
She later reopened the gallery after receiving word that the protesters had left the Statehouse. By that time, the Senate proceedings had been closed to the public for more than 20 minutes.
“This is unconscionable and cannot, and shall not, be tolerated,” said Ron Keefover, coalition president. “We are urging your investigation and speedy resolution of this matter, including a preliminary restraint, which may be achieved in a consent order, so that it may not recur now or in the future as your office resolves this complaint.”
Here is the complaint letter sent to Attorney General Derek Schmidt:
Mr. Derek Schmidt
Kansas Attorney General
120 SW 10th Ave. 2nd Floor
Topeka, KS 66612-1597
Re: Formal Complaint of Kansas Open Meetings Act Violation by Senate President Wagle
Dear Attorney General Schmidt,
I am submitting this letter and formal complaint in reaction to unprecedented action by Sen. President Susan Wagle this morning in ordering the news media removed from the Senate Chambers during their news coverage of protests from the Senate gallery by a group opposed to Senate debate regarding Medicaid expansion.
This formal complaint is being filed on behalf of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, the Kansas Press Association, the Kansas Association of Broadcasters, and the Kansas Institute for Government Transparency.
The facts, as widely reported by the news media, including the Associated Press, are that earlier this morning, the Senate arrested nine protesters after disrupting debate on the legislation, but also cleared the Senate gallery and news media area, with Senate President Susan Wagle's spokesman saying the media were removed because reporters were providing publicity to the protesters.
This is clearly an unconstitutional breach of both the Kansas Constitution and the U.S. Constitution's right to liberty of the press. The Kansas Constitution says: "The liberty of the press shall be inviolate; and all persons may freely speak, write or publish their sentiments on all subjects."
We believe today’s unprecedented action also is a violation of the Senate's own rules, which say their meetings are open to the press and public. On page 12, rule 23 of the Senate's rules states: The open meeting law (K.S.A. 75- 4317 et seq., and amendments thereto) shall apply to meetings of the Senate and all of its standing committees, select committees, special committees and subcommittees of any of such committees.” When the Senate without warning closed the chamber doors, the closure was done without notice and rendered the public incapable of attending the proceedings in violation of the Kansas Constitution, the Kansas Open Meetings Act and the Senate’s own rules.
This is unconscionable and cannot, and shall not, be tolerated. We are urging your investigation and speedy resolution of this matter, including a preliminary restraint, which may be achieved in a consent order, so that it may not recur now or in the future as your office resolves this complaint.
Thank you sincerely for your time and consideration of this complaint.
Ron Keefover, President
Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government
Cc: Members of the News Media
Sen. Susan Wagle
Sen. Anthony Hensley