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Testimony to the Nebraska Capitol Commission on Rules Governing Free Speech on Capitol Grounds

Hello, My name is Patricia Wonch Hill and I want to thank the Capitol Commission in advance for hearing my public comments today.

I am here today because I am looking for clarification and for an update from this commission to the use and rules of the public spaces on the capitol grounds. The Nebraska State Capitol is a state and national treasure and it has been my experience that the public spaces in the capitol are being restricted due to partisanship. I personally have been denied access to public press briefings, my movement through the rotunda has been blocked by capitol security at public events like the tree lighting ceremony, and most recently, I was threatened with arrest simply for standing on the North steps of the capitol where other members of the public were allowed. This denial of access, exclusion, and harassment began with the tenure of Captain Rogers as the head of Capitol security.

Last Saturday, the governor announced a public bill signing of LB814 and announced it would take place outdoors on the front steps of the capitol. A public event was also on facebook. I called Sen. Geist’s office and the Governor’s office to verify the date and time of this public bill signing, and the details were confirmed and they said all were welcome. Upon my arrival at the capitol, I noted a rope/barrier across the front steps of the capitol building, and I entered with a sign with the intention of standing there and holding my sign. Almost immediately, I was flanked on both sides by state troopers who serve as capitol security who threatened me with arrest for obstruction of official government business, and later, threats of arrest for failure to obey, and for falsifying information because they did not believe that I had spoken to Senator Geist’s office and Governor Ricketts office. To be clear this was intimidation, and it was effective as most people who were there in opposition to LB814 were effectively removed from the capitol stairs. At the same time, proponents of LB814 were allowed to move freely. They disobeyed rules for rallies at the state capitol created by this commission in numerous ways, they laid banners across the stairs, and they held a large banner on two poles, which is prohibited. Although I stood my ground, Captain Rogers blocked my view of the Governor and blocked me from moving at all as my back was to the stairs and the Captain was directly in front of me. None of these state troopers were wearing face masks and I asked repeatedly to be given space for social distancing, to be able to move freely like the rest of the public, and to stop being threatened and harassed for simply exercising my first amendment right to free speech and freedom of assembly. Captain Rogers was there to intimidate me, but he failed.
Later I learned that not only were opponents of LB814 blocked from the steps of the state capitol for this “Public” rally/bill signing, but the general public was also blocked as Captain Rogers locked the north door to the capitol to all visitors, of which there were quite a few that day. I was told by Roxanne at the Capitol Commission that this request was to block protesters with signs from standing on the steps behind the governor and some vague notion of “safety”. Let me be clear that the governor is afraid of opposition from peaceful protesters, and this was in no way about actual safety. For example, Captain Rogers and Capitol Security rolled out the red carpet for a mob of self-proclaimed white supremacists carrying assault rifles just last winter.

It is clear to me that the Governor wishes for the capitol to only be accessible to members of the ruling party in this state, or for groups with which he is in ideological agreement. This partisan access is unconstitutional and completely contrary to the very words etched to the outside of this building that, “The Salvation of the State is watchfulness in the citizen.”
As a 5th generation Nebraskan, I feel it is my duty as a citizen to participate in our democracy. Indeed, Nebraska has a rich history of nonpartisanship. I have been disgusted by this overtly partisan governor having two sets of rules one for his supporters and one set for his opponents.

I implore the capitol commission to uphold the nonpartisan capitol building grounds by clarifying the rules. I ask this commission, first, to clearly define what areas of the capitol are public, and whether private events are allowed, and if so, how they should be conducted. There was no guest list on Saturday and the state patrol decided who could attend and who could not attend based on the content of their signs or the message on their t-shirt. Second, I also ask that the Capitol Commission ban guns from the capitol in order to ensure the safety of all who work and visit here. It makes no sense to not allow wooden signs or signs affixed to polls for “safety” when there are white supremacists running around with assault rifles. The Capitol should be a SAFE place that is accessible to every citizen, no matter their political affiliation or beliefs. Please act now to ensure citizens’ constitutional rights are not violated or threatened by capitol security or radical white men with guns. I am happy to answer any questions. Thank you for your time.