CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Wyoming’s top elected officials agreed Wednesday to get legal advice from the attorney general’s office regarding regulation of lobbying activities in the tunnel that connects the Capitol Building and the Herschler State Office Building.
The state received complaints about congestion in the tunnel during prayer circle events held by an anti-abortion group during the legislative session last winter.
There also were objections to a photo display by WyWatch, a family values organization, said Rich Cathcart, the state’s construction manager.
The legislators go through the tunnel to get to their vehicles in the parking garage. It is also used by state employees.
Cathcart on Wednesday reported the complaints to the state Building Commission, composed of the governor, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer and superintendent of public instruction.
He said the current guidelines on use of the tunnel, also called the Herschler Gallery, are vague.
Gov. Matt Mead, the commission chairman, said the issue will come up again.
“There are First Amendment issues we need to be cognizant of,” he said after the meeting.
Becky Vandeberghe, president of WyWatch Family Action, referred questions about the complaints to the Alliance Defense Fund. The fund attorneys sent a letter Monday to the state attorney general’s office and other state agencies on behalf of WyWatch.
The letter outlined U.S. Supreme Court opinions that said speech cannot be restricted.
The lack of a clear state policy creates a vague situation that is problematic under the First Amendment, Jonathan Scruggs, an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, said Wednesday in a telephone interview.
Scruggs said his group hopes the state will respond accordingly and allow WyWatch to continue displaying photos and other materials.
“All we’re asking for is, not special treatment, but equal treatment,” he said.
During the meeting, Richard Wall, a Cheyenne resident who said he represented some of the people at the prayer rally, said that the sponsors thought people would walk through the tunnel while the group was praying, but they waited for them to finish instead. The prayer was continuous, Wall said.
That problem, he said, could be corrected with a posted notice inviting people to walk on through.
The Capitol Club for legislative lobbyists is also located in a room off of the tunnel.
During showing of a video featuring President Ronald Reagan speaking about his anti-abortion views, lobbyists complained the sound was so loud they couldn’t talk on the telephone.
Wall said the sound was adjusted.
The prayer group met in the tunnel because it was not allowed to hold a public prayer in the Capitol Building, he said.
He read a statement from Rep. Amy Edmonds, R-Cheyenne, that said she and other legislators want to keep the tunnel open and not make these groups conduct their rallies outside in the cold.
Edmonds urged the officials to consider the “ramifications of denying people’s right to speak.”
The photo posted by WyWatch that some people found offensive had been on the cover of Life magazine, he said. It showed a surgeon performing inter-utero surgery holding the tiny finger of a fetus.
Some people objected because they thought the photo was not suitable for school-age children, Cathcart said.
Tom Jones, an attorney, former legislator and lobbyist, said he was one of those who complained of the group’s lobbying activities in the tunnel.
There were 20 to 40 members of the prayer group who were obstructing foot traffic while they lobbied legislators as the lawmakers walked through the tunnel, he said.
“It wasn’t quite the benign event Mr. Wall pointed out,” Jones said. “It was absolutely terrible.”
Even people who shared the views of the demonstrators objected, he added.
Jones, who emphasized his support of free speech rights, said the only solution is to close off the tunnel to all demonstrators.