Opinion and Forefront

SHELLA: Free speech on display at the Legislature

February 4, 2012

Jim ShellaIf you do what I do, you have to appreciate freedom of speech. If you’ve seen what’s gone on at the Statehouse this winter, you have to appreciate it even more.

There have been victories in the name of free speech, beginning with the governor’s reversal of new security rules at the Statehouse.

When faced with the prospect of large groups of protesters appearing in the hallways daily, the state police superintendent and the fire marshal drew up new guidelines. Now, I’m going to guess they got guidance from the Governor’s Office and I know they got guidance from legislative leaders, but they came up with a decision that made no sense.

They said visitors with no permanent passes had to enter through a single entrance, that the capacity of the building is 3,000 (and 1,500 already work there), and they did some really goofy stuff that included labeling one elevator as “reserved for lawmakers and legislative staff.” They announced the plan on a Friday afternoon just before the New Year’s weekend (hoping no one would notice?). They then put the plan in practice for not quite three hours.

That’s because Gov. Mitch Daniels pulled the plug on them. He heard complaints from minority lawmakers, the media and the public, and realized this was a plan he could not defend.

Legislative leaders who encouraged the new policy then went public to second the governor’s motion. (Free speech and hypocrisy go hand in hand.) I, meanwhile, got my best souvenir of the session, so far, with the acquisition of a “reserved” sign no longer needed for that private elevator.

The reversal of that policy led to the events on the night of the State of the State address. I’m told 5,000 union protesters were on hand, most of them outside the building, but well more than a thousand in Statehouse hallways. They made a lot of noise. My ears hurt. The photographer who works with me told friends on Facebook to text louder. They could be heard on the TV broadcast of the speech.

But no one took steps to quiet them. (A union leader called the chanting and cheering “organic.”)

As an aside, I witnessed a death-penalty protest outside the Governor’s Office a number of years ago when family and friends of a condemned man tried to win a last-minute commutation with shouting and drumming at the loudest per-capita demonstration I have ever heard. I walked away then with a new understanding of the First Amendment. It didn’t compare to the union protest at the State of the State.

Now, this is not to say free speech is effective speech. All of this union-backed expression is in response to the right-to-work bill. And there was a House committee hearing on the right-to-work bill that ended with union members inside the House chamber shouting and pointing fingers at Republicans who voted for it and prevented amendments to it. That’s probably not the way to change minds, if, in fact, that’s even possible on this issue.

Which leads us to the folks who are successfully pursuing right-to-work legislation. The lobbyists for the chamber of commerce and others are staging their own demonstrations in blue suits with signs the size of business cards. They have Statehouse passes and register as lobbyists and therefore get inside the barricades outside the House and Senate chambers.

For all the shouting and yelling and the creation of acceptable 2-foot-by-2-foot protest signs, the union protesters likely will accomplish little. They may even hurt their cause. Odds are right-to-work will become law in Indiana and they will take their case to other venues, including campaign rallies for Democrats.

But until then, crowds in the Statehouse hallways and the noise they make are a daily testament to freedom in America and Indiana.•

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Shella is WISH-TV Channel 8’s political reporter, as well as host and producer of the Emmy-nominated “Indiana Week in Review.” Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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