Legal battle between former K-State students, statehouse leadership ends in changed policies

A banner stating there is blood on the hands of Republican leadership for refusing to vote on Medicaid expansion hangs in the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka last March. The House had recently passed a bill in favor of Medicaid expansion, which the state Senate had yet to vote on. Students were detained and later banned from the statehouse following their involvement with the demonstration. That ban was later revoked and the students, with the aid of the ACLU, filed a suit against administrators in Topeka. (Photo courtesy of Katie Sullivan)

Following about a year of litigation, statehouse demonstration rules will look different going forward after three former Kansas State students sued officials. The case was dismissed, a press release from the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas says.

In March 2019, Katie Sullivan, Jonathan Cole and Nate Faflick were detained at the statehouse after they unfurled banners calling out Republican legislators who were holding up Medicaid Expansion, saying they had “blood on their hands.”

The former students were three of the five individuals involved in hanging the banners, but were the only ones detained by Capitol Police. Thea Perry and Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan were involved, but were not detained. They were also briefly banned from the statehouse for one year, facing trespassing charges if they didn’t comply. That ban was later revoked.

Backed by the ACLU of Kansas, Cole, Sullivan and Faflick sued three statehouse officials in federal court — administrative secretary Duane Goossen, administrative services director Tom Day and superintendent of the Highway Patrol Herman Jones. The case didn’t pertain solely to the punitive action, but related to the policy that resulted in the detention.

“This case is about Kansas’s scheme of rules and practices that collectively suppress virtually every method of speech and expression at the Kansas Statehouse building,” the complaint document says. “Official rules and regulations adopted by the Department of Administration and enforced by the Kansas Capitol Police impose prior restraints on assembly and speech by limiting the right to protest to people who have the support of an elected official, pass the Secretary of Administration’s standardless [sic] approval test, and wish to speak about an issue or event that is not spontaneous.

“…[The Defendants’] standardless policy permitting Capitol Police to impose indefinite premises bans on members of the public for Statehouse policy violations, regardless of the severity of the violation, is vague, overbroad, and unconstitutionally suppresses core petitioning activities without due process of law,” the document continues.

At the time the suit was filed, Cole said the goal was ultimately to have the policies that limited freedom of expression overturned and “replaced” with new rules that don’t impede First Amendment rights in the Statehouse.

Lauren Bonds, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas, said that’s exactly what the plaintiffs got.

“Our clients got essentially everything they’d sought through the lawsuit,” Bonds said. “We are happy with the outcome, and we are happy that Kansans can fully exercise their right to protest in the people’s house.”

Under the new statehouse rules, permits aren’t necessary anymore to protest, gather or demonstrate in the capitol building, legislator sponsorship is not required for citizens seeking to reserve space in the building and signs aren’t prohibited in the building. Additionally, the Kansas Highway Patrol — under which Capitol Police falls — do not have the authority to ban people from the statehouse unless they violate a law.

My name is Kaylie McLaughlin and I'm the ex-managing editor and audience engagement manager of the Collegian. Previously, I've been the editor-in-chief and the news editor. In the past, I have also contributed to the Royal Purple Yearbook and KKSU-TV. Off-campus, you can find my bylines in the Wichita Eagle, the Shawnee Mission Post and KSNT News. I grew up just outside of Kansas City in Shawnee, Kansas. I’m a senior in digital journalism with a minor in French and a secondary focus in international and area studies. As a third-generation K-Stater, I bleed purple and my goal is to serve the Wildcat community with accurate coverage.