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ACLU sues Senate president, others for ejecting woman from chamber for attempting to record abortion law bill debate

MORGANTOWN — The ACLU of West Virginia is suing the state Senate president and three others on behalf of a Greenbrier County woman who alleges she was unlawfully ejected from the Senate chamber for attempting to record deliberations on the special session abortion law bill.

The ACLU filed two suits describing the same allegations: one in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, and one in Kanawha County Circuit Court.

The plaintiff is Tiffany Morgan Walton, a construction worker. The defendants are Senate President Craig Blair, Assistant Sergeant-at-Arms Grover Miller, Division of Protective Services (Capitol police) Director Kevin Foreman and DPS Officer Van Armstrong.

Blair’s office and the governor’s office (on behalf of DPS) both declined comment due to the pending litigation.

The ACLU said in a release announcing the suits, “The Constitution, Supreme Court precedent, and state sunshine laws are all quite clear: Members of the public have every right to record public meetings as long as they do so in a non-disruptive manner.”

As suits relate, the incident took place July 29, the final night of the now-indefinitely paused special session called to deal with the governor’s income tax proposal and an update on state abortion law, HB 302, necessitated by the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade and Planned Parenthood v Casey.

The Senate was taking up HB 302 and Walton was in the gallery, using her cell phone to record the debate (which is also livestreamed via audio and video, and archived for later playback).

She had previously recorded the debate on a Senate resolution introduced in place of the governor’s tax bill, the suits say.

A Senate doorkeeper told members of the public entering the gallery that photography and video recording were prohibited and a sign posted in the gallery told the audience, “Turn off cell phones, no flash photography, no leaning on railing.”

The suit cites the state Open Governmental Meetings Act (which it calls the Open Governmental Proceedings Act), which says, “Governing bodies may not prohibit citizens or the media from using equipment necessary for recording a meeting unless it is to prevent undue interference with the meeting. Ordinary use of such equipment alone may not be declared to constitute undue interference with a governing body’s meetings.”

When the ACLU became aware that members of the public were being stopped from recording, the ACLU says it sent Blair an email informing him state code permitted it.

The Senate took up the bill about 4 p.m. and Walton began recording at about 4:31. Miller approached her and told her to stop. Walton gave him a copy of the letter the ACLU had sent Blair and posted publicly.

Miller told her to move into the hallway, they argued and DPS officers came and Walton was removed. She continued arguing with officers in the hallway. The suit cites a video of this exchange posted at the website of Charleston-based Mountain State Spotlight,

When Walton told the officers she was being kicked out of a public event, the suit quotes a DPS officer saying, “You don’t have the right to disturb the process.”

She replied, “I am definitely not disturbing anything just because I have my phone out. The senators have their phones out.”

Miller replied, “This is only public if you follow the rules. If you can’t follow the rules you have to excuse yourself.”

Walton continued protesting as she was escorted downstairs.

As The Dominion Post reported that day, Blair cleared the gallery just before 6 p.m. because of hecklers in the gallery.

The suit alleges Walton suffered violation of her First Amendment rights and emotional trauma, humiliation and distress. It seeks an injunction prohibiting the defendants from prohibiting individuals from observing and recording meetings, court costs and fees, along with any other proper relief.

TWEET David Beard @dbeardtdp