Testifying for Free Speech in Wis. Capitol
At 2:30 p.m. on a sunny summer Friday afternoon, the Wisconsin Department of Administration held a pro forma public hearing on emergency rules regarding access to the state capitol. About thirty people showed up for the hearing. Exactly two reporters were there to cover the proceedings: me and a citizen videographer and journalist, Arthur Kohl-Riggs, who runs a blog “Shit Scott Walker Is Doing to My State.”
Those who testified included the University of Wisconsin police chief, one lawmaker’s aide, and twenty citizens. All but two argued passionately against the rules.
The current “emergency” rules are the subject of a First Amendment lawsuit in Federal District Court. A portion of the rules was recently enjoined by Judge William Conley for the Western District of Wisconsin. The Department of Administration has declined to appeal the injunction, but is continuing to pursue the permanent enactment of these rules.
New rules restricting expression of dissent were first introduced by the Walker regime in December 2011 in reaction to the ongoing noon-hour Solidarity Sing Along. Participants have refused to go along with what they believe is an unconstitutional permitting scheme for the past seventeen months, and continue to gather in the rotunda at noon on weekdays when there is not a permitted event taking place in the space.
Over 140 citations have been issued to several dozen people who show up to sing at noon, and the vast majority of them have been thrown out in court. Last fall under the direction of a new chief, David Erwin, capitol police officers physically arrested, handcuffed and marched people holding signs and singing down to the basement of the capitol where they were given their citations.
After some negative publicity in the mainstream press, they began hand-delivering citations to people at their places of work and at their homes. When recipients began turning cameras and reporters on to this tactic, they began sending citations by mail. Since the federal court case challenging the basis upon which the citations were written was filed in February, no new citations have been issued.
The heavy-handed tactics of the Capitol Police have not deterred the singers from continuing to exercise their First Amendment rights. In fact, for many it has only made them more determined to protect the public forum of the capitol rotunda as a free speech zone. With the intensified assault on women’s rights, health care, education and the environment in the latest legislative session, the singers’ resistance to the restrictions has become even more critical.
A public hearing is required before the emergency rules can become permanent. They also have to be vetted by the legislature through the Republican-dominated Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules. Testimony from the hearing on Friday will not likely change the plan to ram them through the process. But the hearing did provide a forum for people to enter their thoughts and arguments both for and against the rules into the public record.
At the beginning of the hearing, a rightwing blogger who once tried to organize his own counter-sing-along and a Republican legislative aide urged the implementation of the rules that impose a complicated permitting scheme for group activities, displays and banners in the Capitol rotunda.
But the largest part of the two-hour hearing belonged to First Amendment defenders and Solidarity Singers.
University of Wisconsin Police Chief Sue Riseling took to the podium and emphasized that the Constitution is the highest law of the land and it establishes speech and assembly as fundamental rights. She concluded saying, “It’s more important for fundamental principles of democracy to remain healthy than it is for a building interior to remain quiet.”
The remainder of the hearing was taken up by the fearless voices of people who have been on the frontlines of maintaining the rotunda as one of the last remaining venues for citizens to express their grievances to state government. Department of Administration officials and capitol police staff at the hearing sat mute while citizens argued against the rules and the political forces that are pushing for their permanent enactment.
Brian Sullivan got to the heart of the matter in his brief statement: “We, the general public, may not have the millions of dollars that it takes to air a TV ad that expresses our discontent with certain policies. But what we do have is our voice.” He continued, “When you limit our voice, you limit our participation and our relevance in public discourse and public policy.”
Christine McDonough eloquently expressed her deep concerns about the silencing of the public’s voice and the demonizing of dissenters under the Walker regime. She told Department of Administration officials that they are morally responsible for any attacks made on protesters since Chief Erwin has likened them to terrorists and official Department of Administration statements portray them as troublemakers.
Unlike legislative hearings where committee members frequently interject their voices, opinions and questions, the department employees allowed those wishing to testify to set the tone and, for those two hours anyway, dominate the discussion.
The voices of those who spoke were varied and delightfully original. Even the police officer had to suppress a smile during Will “Good Baby” Gruber’s jazzy vocal stylings: “My smart friends can read you the numbers and the letters of the law and all that crap, but I tell you, people are really BUMMED about what’s going down now.”
Others looked the Walker administration officials in the eye and addressed them by name. “Wendy, you work for a fascist overlord who is second in command to Scott Walker. Too much power has been centralized in this building to the detriment of speech being expressed in the building that matters, the capitol,” said Jason Huberty, who has received many of the dismissed citations.
Nancy Julien, a retired widow who lives alone, plucked up the courage to express her outrage at the rules and her treatment at the hands of the Capitol Police, who sent three armed officers to her home to deliver a citation.
And Susan Cohen refuted claims that the capitol is just an office building for bureaucrats, arguing that it was designed for and belongs to citizens who wish to communicate publicly with their elected officials.
Part of Judge Conley’s order last week abolished the distinction between a rally promoting a cause and other types of gatherings, and increased the size of a group required to get a permit from 4 to 20 people. But even this poses difficult questions for those who frequent the building during the noon hour. In her written testimony read by her friend Theresa, Lisa Wells asked, “I have the right to petition my government. Do I lose my rights when an officer decides that too many other people are exercising their rights at the same time?”
The spirit of dissent – as well as much of the content – was expressed best by the collective genius of the ever-changing group of people who participate in and write music for the Solidarity Sing Along. Greg Gordon composed his three-minute testimony entirely from lyrics cut and pasted from the ever-growing songbook the group has been compiling over the past two years:
Near the end of the hearing Gordon took to the podium again and led the group in song. At the conclusion he asked the Department of Administration officials, “Can you honestly look me in the face and tell me that’s terrorism? Really?”
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.
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