The state Senate Veterans and Military Affairs Committee hears testimony on Senate Bill 23-170, one of three gun violence prevention bills reviewed during a hearing at the Capitol in Denver, March 8, 2023. (Kevin Mohatt for Colorado Newsline)
A conservative activist recently was booted from the Senate gallery at the Colorado Capitol for wearing a sweatshirt that contained what staff deemed a prohibited political statement. The activist, Jeff Hunt, objected to such treatment and says Capitol authorities should be more tolerant of free expression.
On March 21, anti-abortion advocates planned a Pregnancy Resource Center Day at the Capitol to express opposition to a package of reproductive health care bills. Hunt, director of Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute, showed up wearing a sweatshirt that bore the words “Pro-Life U” and “Colorado Christian University.”
In an account of what happened next that Hunt provided to Westword, the chamber’s sergeant-at-arms soon approached and asked that he step outside the gallery, where the sergeant-at-arms noted a sign that bars from the gallery political statements on clothing. Hunt protested that Pro-Life U is a registered name for Colorado Christian University, but to no avail.
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Here are the rules: The Colorado General Assembly website’s visitor page says “Signs or banners of any kind and pins or apparel expressing political statements are prohibited” in the House and Senate public galleries. A sign posted in the Senate Committee Hallway at the Capitol says “Clothing that displays a conspicuous statement in support of, or in opposition to, any legislation before the committee will not be allowed in the committee room.”
In a statement to Westword, secretary of the Senate Cindi Markwell said, “The purpose of the policy is to avoid conflict between opposing sides on any particular issue … We believe that to protect its process and the senators that the Senate is authorized to limit expression of support or opposition on matters it is debating. This includes verbal statements as well as signs and messages on apparel.”
The rules have as many holes as an old T-shirt.
The Capitol is where the people's business is done. The whole purpose of the place is to provide a forum for political debate and the free exchange of ideas.
As Hunt pointed out, the rules appear to be selectively applied. Last month hundreds of high school students marched to the Capitol and filled the Senate gallery, some wearing clothes with explicitly anti-gun violence messages.
Capitol representatives explained that the students were demonstrating against gun violence on a day when no gun violence-related bills were on the Legislature’s calendar. But it’s hard to believe there aren’t occasions during every legislative session when some visitor gets by wearing some item of clothing expressing some message during debate on some related bill, whether it’s, say, a Gadsden flag, suffragist white outfits, a Ukraine flag pin, or even a Christian cross.
This highlights another flaw of the rules: Many instances of enforcement will collide with the question of how to distinguish between a personal statement and a political statement. Is that rainbow-colored shirt a fashion choice or a show of support for a gender-affirming care bill? Is that American-flag tie simply the one that went best with that jacket or does it signal solidarity with election deniers? Did that member of the Democratic Socialists of America wear a shirt with the group’s logo because she does so routinely or is she broadcasting support for the labor-protection bill up for debate on the Senate floor?
The more important point is that, even if “political statement” could always be precisely defined, the General Assembly is philosophically wrong to bar it from clothes. The Capitol is where the people’s business is done. The whole purpose of the place is to provide a forum for political debate and the free exchange of ideas. On principle alone, such a particular limit on free expression is un-democratic.
Capitol authorities have a legitimate interest in maintaining decorum, order and peace in all areas of the Capitol. But apparel regulations, in contrast to those related to displayed signs or vocalizations, seem to target only possible precursors to a breach of the peace, not a breach itself. If the goal is to avoid conflict, Capitol authorities can police behavior rather than appearance. One can imagine certain beyond-the-pale examples — the words “Sieg Heil” emblazoned on a shirt, an approving likeness of Osama bin Laden — but surely a rule could be crafted for rare cases such to prohibit forms of expression so certain to offend that their mere presence disrupts peace throughout the chamber. Pro-life U would not qualify for prohibition under that standard.
To be sure, it is richly hypocritical of Hunt to posture as a free-expression warrior. An influential conservative figure, Hunt recently blocked numerous Colorado journalists (including me) on Twitter. In September Hunt’s Centennial Institute with no explanation barred Newsline journalists from covering a publicly advertised candidate forum hosted by the Institute. Hunt, one of Colorado’s most ardent anti-abortion voices, advances toxic views of many varieties, not least in his hostility to transgender people.
But that is all the more reason to fiercely defend Hunt’s right to expression. Tolerance of opposition views never goes out of fashion in a free society.
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