The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas has filed a lawsuit on behalf of three Kansas State University students who were detained and banned from the Statehouse after displaying massive banners in a protest last month.
The lawsuit contends Statehouse authorities imposed impermissible restraint on political expression protected by the First Amendment by detaining the students and telling them they couldn't return for a year. That ban was lifted the following day.
Five people were involved in the demonstration. They unfurled four banners 24 feet tall and 10 feet wide from the fifth-floor railings at the center of the Capitol that declared GOP leadership had "blood on their hands" for standing in the way of Medicaid expansion.
Tom Day, an administrative director at the Statehouse, quickly removed the banners and returned them to the three K-State students. Capitol Police Officer Scott Whitsell then detained the students, told them they were banned from the Statehouse for a year and threatened them with a criminal trespass charge if they returned.
“We’re arguing that the Statehouse should not impose arbitrary and unnecessary restrictions that suppress political expression,” said Lauren Bonds, interim executive director of ACLU of Kansas. “The building belongs to the people of Kansas, and by shutting down speech, the state is preventing our clients from being able to exercise their First Amendment right to petition their government.”
The demonstration prompted immediate backlash from GOP leaders, as well as Democrats who said the protest wasn't helpful in moving forward the discussion on Medicaid expansion.
Only the students — Jonathan Cole, Katie Sullivan and Nathan Faflick — were detained. Thea Perry, a rural Leavenworth County resident, organized the March 27 event. Topeka Rev. Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan also took part.
Lt. Eric Hatcher, who oversees officers in the Statehouse, lifted the ban the following day.
“There are some things that I prefer to be done a certain way,” Hatcher said at the time, “and it wasn’t done a certain way, and I won’t elaborate beyond that.”
The lawsuit identifies newly appointed Kansas Highway Patrol superintendent Herman Jones as a defendant, along with Day and Duane Goossen, the acting secretary of administration under Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat who supports Medicaid expansion.
"We can’t comment specifically on the details of pending litigation," said Ashley All, the governor's spokeswoman. "However, the governor understands the importance of free speech and the need to protect the rights of citizens to participate in their democracy."
ACLU takes aim at a Statehouse policy that bans the display of personal signage, subjecting them to the discretion of Capitol Police officers.
The K-State students should be allowed, the lawsuit argues, "to engage in individual and three-person demonstrations at the Statehouse without prior approval, to silently display signs expressing opposition or support for pending legislation, and to ensure that neither they nor anyone else is impermissibly or arbitrarily issued a categorical Statehouse premises ban.”