Serving as an intern in the Kansas Legislature should be a learning experience, and learning how to dress and act in a professional way is a legitimate part of that education.
How that instruction is delivered, however, was a matter of some debate as the Legislature prepared to open its 2014 session.
One logical possibility would be to depend on individual legislators to set standards for their interns and deal with any inappropriate attire or behavior on a case-by-case basis. Apparently, some legislative leaders didn’t believe that system was working well enough, so House Speaker Pro Tem Peggy Mast, R-Emporia, decided to draft some more specific — some very specific — standards for intern appearance and behavior. Violating the rules could lead to dismissal from the intern program.
Some of the details of Mast’s policy seemed straight out of a 1960s or ‘70s high school dress code, and, as any school administrator during that era could have told you, policing fashion can be a tricky business. Mast’s guidelines set some common-sense standards for intern dress, but also ventured further into more subjective areas. Men’s hair should be clean and “neatly” styled, it said, with no “over-the-top colors.” And no earrings for men, no matter how well groomed the young gentleman is. Women could wear earrings but only one in each ear.
Mast’s policy also warned interns against using social media in a way that “might call into question your character,” and saying “anything derogatory” about any policy or individual they may encounter in the Legislature.
Well-intentioned as it probably was, Mast’s detailed policy raised many concerns including some about whether the guidelines infringed on interns’ constitutional rights. By the time interns had their orientation tour on Thursday, most of the details of the guidelines — including hair color, earrings, how much perfume an intern should wear, and warnings about social media — had been taken out.
Among other things, it became clear that not all legislators agreed on or wanted to enforce, Mast’s detailed standards. That’s understandable, but it’s still important that both interns and legislators look upon their manner and dress as a reflection of the respect they have for the dignity and importance of the body in which they serve.
The remaining general guidelines in the policy should serve as sound advice for the interns, who reportedly were sharply dressed at their orientation session. Trying to dictate standards for hair color and earrings was carrying a good concept to far, but setting the expectation that interns working in the statehouse will dress and conduct themselves in a professional manner is a good idea.