Photos of people who support “aid-in-dying” legislation — removed abruptly last month from the wall of the tunnel between the state Capitol and the Legislative Office Building — can be put back up Thursday, after the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut raised constitutional questions about their removal.
“We were notified late Tuesday that [the Office of] Legislative Management would give us the space to re-hang the End-of-Life Choice: Six Words portrait display,” said Tim Appleton, Connecticut Campaign Manager for the “aid-in-dying” advocacy group Compassion & Choices. “We’re pleased with this solution,” he said, “and we, again, encourage visitors to come see these courageous supporters of death with dignity.”
The 30 or so poster-sized photos show faces of “aid-in-dying” supporters, both young and old – including a doctor, nurse, med student, clergyman, former legislators, and activists – along with a six-word quotation from each, such as: ”Terminally ill people should have choice”; “Pro-choice in life and death”; “Born free! Live free! Die free!” and “I intend to die with dignity.”
The legislative management office oversees the public displays that are set up in the LOB tunnel by organizations, and its executive director, James Tracy, told Appleton in an email Wednesday that his group could put the display back up from Thursday through the following Wednesday to make up for the days it had reserved, but lost.
The display came down on Feb. 7, a week before its scheduled Feb. 14 removal date, after House Minority Leader Larry Cafero approached Tracy, telling him he thought it was inappropriate for the public space inside the Capitol complex.
“It caught my eye. It was so directly advocating for a piece of legislation during a legislative session.” Cafero recalled Wednesday. “In my 22 years here, I’d never seen anything like that before.”
The underground corridor is continually booked to showcase artwork by students and adults, as well as Connecticut history, state building projects, community service organizations, health issues, and various other non-controversial things. However, Appleton’s display was focused on a pending bill that’s at the center of a legislative battle: House Bill 5326.
The bill would allow a mentally competent patient with less than six months to live to obtain a doctor’s prescription for a lethal dose of medication – and, this past Monday, it was the subject of an animated public hearing by the legislature’s public health committee.
When Cafero first raised his concerns in early February, Tracy researched the legislature’s policy on what can be displayed in what is formally called the “lower concourse.” The only guideline he found was that materials must be suitable for viewing by the thousands of school children who parade through on Capitol tours, Cafero said. Tracy decided that “until we analyzed whther it was offensive to school-age children,it would be taken down,” Cafero said.
“We were stunned when it was taken down,” Appleton recalled, because “we did everything properly.”
On Feb. 27, staff attorney David J. McGuire of the ACLU of Connecticut, wrote to Tracy, saying: “Our concern is that the…display may have been removed because of objections to the viewpoint that the advertising expresses. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits such viewpoint discrimination…”
McGuire said that the vague “suitable for children” guideline gives “standardless discretion” to administrators, “which is not only impermissible in itself…but which compounds the risk of… discrimination.”
McGuire also said officials had not disturbed a recent display in the tunnel by the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, even though it had supported “that group’s legislative priorities.”
ACLU representatives talked with Tracy in a phone call March 11, McGuire said. “We are pleased that the Office of Legislative Management is restoring the display.”
Not so with Peter Wolfgang, the executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut and a staunch opponent of the aid-in-dying bill. He said photo display was indistinguishable from Compassion & Choices’s paid advertising campaign in support of the bill, adding that it “glamorizes suicide” in a message that could be harmful to school kids passing by.
“It is, in essence, a paid ad for House Bill 5326 on state property,\’\’ Wolfgang said. “What threw a lot of people up at the state Capitol was dishonesty on the part of Compassion & Choices…they presented it as an artistic exhibit, not a paid ad.”
Cafero said that in the absence of formal standards, the legislative management office decided it would be unfair to single out the aid-in-dying group’s display for removal.
But, Cafero added: “I think it’s a policy we should revisit. I’m all for free speech, but is the state in the business of providing a billboard [inside the Capitol corridor]? And if so…does that mean it’s for any group? What, if God forbid, the American Nazi Party wanted to put up a billboard? Or an anti-gun group, or pro-gun…or pro-life…or pro-choice? Or death penalty? Is it ‘anything goes’ – just sign up and we take you in order?’
“People have a chance to advocate for their causes in a myriad of ways” in the Capitol and Legislative Office Building, Cafero said. “If some commercial guy put a pricetag on that space – in close proximity to legislators – when you are advocating for anything, that’s very valuable space. Is it now going to be the case where any organization … has the right to put their stuff up there?”
Courant staff writer Daniela Altimari contributed to this report.