Poor People's Campaign mulls lawsuit over state policy limiting Capitol access

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – Anti-poverty activists said Wednesday they are weighing legal action over a recently enacted policy limiting their access to the Kentucky Capitol building, the latest salvo in a free speech dispute pitting state police against protesters.

The new rules allowing members of the Kentucky Poor People’s Campaign to enter the public building only in groups of two gives state police too much discretion and is being enforced arbitrarily, said Pam McMichael, a leader of the movement.

“We believe the policy is clearly a prior restraint of the exercise of free speech, which is highly disfavored under our Kentucky Constitution and the laws interpreting it,” she said at a news conference on the Capitol steps. “We are continuing to explore the appropriate legal steps to vindicate our groups’ rights and those of all Kentuckians.”

She spoke shortly before activists were met by officers guarding a statehouse door as they attempted to enter the public building.  

Following a policy that singles out the group, the officers told the marchers that only two people at a time could come in. A brief standoff ensued, before protesters prayed and chose not to try to enter the Capitol together.

Members were able to deliver a Bible to Gov. Matt Bevin that highlights verses about poverty, McMichael said.

“There’s some picturing of us like we’re just running around, just trying to get arrested,” she said. “What is driving this campaign is the needs – the urgent and profound needs – of the people of Kentucky and how can we use opportunities to raise those issues,” she said in an interview.

The event saw the return to Kentucky of Rev. William J. Barber, co-chair of the national Poor People's Campaign, who called the Capitol entry policy "a kind of segregation" and said those who are blocking protesters are "intent on violating the basics of the Constitution."

The group has been active in Frankfort over the last month. State police limited members’ access to the Capitol after “prior unlawful acts by the protesters” and their “intent to commit criminal acts by refusing the leave the Capitol once inside,” police commissioner Rick Sanders wrote in a May 8 letter to legislators explaining the policy.

Sanders cited three cases in which protesters allegedly blocked traffic near the Capitol, “tampered with property” and stayed inside the statehouse after regular hours and entered a restricted area around the Governor’s mansion.

McMichael acknowledged that members of the group had briefly blocked traffic, although she questioned the figures cited by police and said 11 people were involved. Sanders' letter says 30 demonstrators were involved.

She said the "die-in" at Bevin's mansion was meant to demonstrate the impact of war spending and militarism

"It’s true that civil disobedience is a long-proven way of making social change in this country," McMichael said. "A lot of us walk around enjoy benefits from people who have made those choices in the past.”

Democratic state Reps. George Brown Jr. of Lexington and Attica Scott of Louisville have asked Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear’s office to rule on the admittance policy. Brown, who attended the Poor People’s Campaign rally Wednesday, said he’s concerned about how the policy could be enforced in the future.

“This is setting a precedent for eliminating people’s access to the people’s house and that cannot stand,” he said. “There’s nothing right about that.”

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