Ensuring Decorum and Civility in the Legislative Committee Hearing Process

by Dan Cartin

If you attend a legislative committee meeting at the State Capitol, you will see this sign posted in the Senate and House committee room hallways:

sign I

Maintaining decorum and civility during the course of legislative committee meetings is the cornerstone of a productive hearing on the bills before that committee. Persons who come to testify on legislation and those who attend a committee hearing to peacefully observe and listen to the proceedings often travel long distances to the Capitol on the day of the hearing. Everyone attending can reasonably expect that the meeting will proceed in an environment of mutual respect among the legislators, witnesses, and audience that is free from disruptions. One commentator has observed that “[p]reventing disturbances at public meetings is essential to achieving the dual goals of fostering citizen participation and ensuring the efficient accomplishment of public business.” (“Civility in Government Meetings: Balancing First Amendment, Reputational Interests, and Efficiency.” 10 First Amend. L. Rev. 51 (2011)) The right to attend and participate in a committee meeting is necessarily balanced with the committee’s right to ensure that its proceedings are not disrupted.

But legislative committee meetings are occasionally disrupted by verbal outbursts, such as cheering, booing, shouting, or applauding, by persons attending the meeting. Signs, clothing, or distracting electronic or photographic equipment may have a similar, if less audible, disruptive effect on the ability of persons to freely testify on legislation. These distractions illustrate the need to balance the public’s right to freedom of speech and to petition the government with the right of the legislative branch and committee witnesses to engage in a process that ensures decorum and civility.

The Colorado constitution, state statutes, and legislative rules all authorize the General Assembly to preserve decorum generally and in legislative committee meetings specifically. Article V, section 12 of the constitution authorizes each house to adopt rules that address disorderly behavior and enforce obedience to its process.

State statute authorizes the Senate and House to adopt rules or joint rules or to authorize the Senate President or the Speaker to adopt regulations protecting the safety of legislators, staff, and the general public. The rules must be “consistent with public convenience, the public’s right of freedom of expression and to peaceably assemble and petition government, and the established democratic concepts of the openness of the legislative process.” This includes the ability to adopt rules:

  • Regulating admission to legislative areas;
  • Prohibiting signs, banners, placards, and similar display materials without authorization;
  • Restricting the placement of television and photographic equipment;
  • Authorizing the sergeants-at-arms to clear the committee rooms and the chamber galleries if there is a disturbance that disrupts legislative proceedings or endangers legislators, staff, or the public; and
  • Addressing any other matters that may be appropriate for the orderly conduct of the General Assembly’s affairs and protection of the health, safety, and welfare of all the participants in the legislative process.

Senate Rules 22A and 31 and House Rules 23 and 25 address decorum in the chambers and committee rooms. House committee chairpersons are specifically authorized to have a sergeant-at-arms remove persons who impede, disrupt, or hinder a meeting or endanger the meeting’s participants. The Senate does not have a similar rule, but Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure, section 805, suggests that Senate committee chairpersons also have this authority. Fortunately, removing a person or persons from a committee hearing for disruptive behavior occurs very rarely.

Before 2013, the Chief Clerk of the House of Representatives and the Secretary of the Senate each developed policies for the use of committee rooms. Each policy prohibits signs, placards, and banners, as well as clothing with words, pins, or buttons that express support or opposition to issues before a legislative committee. During the 2013 legislative session, Senate and House leadership directed staff to post the “Welcome to the Colorado General Assembly” signs in the hallways outside of the Senate and House committee rooms.

Legislative staff have also created a “Guide to Public Hearings” to supplement the signs. It’s available under “General Legislative Information” on the General Assembly’s website.

So, welcome to the Colorado General Assembly! Hopefully, the information in this article will help ensure that, whether you are coming to the Capitol to testify on a bill or just watch a committee meeting, your experience will be respectful, civil, and free from disruption.