In the wake of the Walker administration’s massive failure to win convictions against citizens exercising political speech in the Wisconsin State Capitol, it has imposed new emergency rules for limiting dissent in the building that go into effect today.
The Wisconsin Department of Administration is using the emergency rules procedure to alter the administrative code governing access to the building in order to manufacture more solid legal ground for arrests and citations in the future.
In their “finding of an emergency,” the Department of Administration claims that the “occupation of the Rotunda and other areas has caused disruptions to properly permitted events and normal governmental activities.” It further asserts that “it is imperative that the Department continue to gain greater compliance from user groups in order to protect public safety and welfare.”
These new rules are clearly aimed at stifling the Solidarity Sing Along, an ever-changing group of people who gather in the rotunda for an hour every weekday at noon to sing songs of protest against the Walker regime. Over the past seven months, Capitol Police have arrested or cited participants more than 140 times for holding signs and banners, for chalking messages on the sidewalk, and for simply being present at the event. Participants assert that they do not need a permit to exercise their constitutional right to petition their government.
The dismissal of sixty-eight of these cases in Dane County Court so far has also prompted the Department of Administration to change tactics, downgrading the role of Capitol Police officers to delivery agents for long-form legal complaints against singers drafted by the Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen and his staff.
The DoA’s claim that the Sing Along disrupts properly permitted events is patently false. If there is a permitted event in the rotunda over the noon hour, singers take their act outdoors. They also do not pose any threat to public safety and welfare.
In fact, the only threats to public safety and welfare in the more than two-year history of the event have come from gun rights activists who threatened and pushed singers around, and a mid-level DoA manager, Ron Blair, who stabbed himself with a knife while slashing a balloon that was in the hands of a visitor to the Capitol. The case against Blair was recently settled for $19,000.
In response to mass dismissals and other orders by judges in the Walker administration’s failed cases against singers, the new rules are designed to clarify and expand the meaning of “hazardous materials” to include otherwise unhazardous items like pieces of paper or soft fabric that could be used in a hazardous way. Also, signs larger than 28” x 28” will require a permit, and a person “who intentionally fails or refuses to withdraw from the assembly after it has been declared unlawful” will be subject to civil forfeiture and/or charges of obstructing.
The problem with all of this is that none of the targeted activities are actually illegal, which is why all those cases were thrown out of court in the first place. It is Walker’s own rules that run contrary to state and federal constitutional provisions for free speech and assembly. No amount of finessing policy can change that.
In a press conference last week, Attorney Bob Jambois, who represents many of the citizens cited by the Capitol police, said, “My clients are being arrested for holding a sign in the Capitol rotunda, a building that was designed to facilitate the voice of the citizens in democracy. “ He added, “The people I’m representing are not criminals. They’re ordinary, law-abiding citizens that happen to disagree with some of the things that some people in government are doing right now.”
Greg Gordon has received four citations over the past seven months. Three of them have been dismissed, but one case for disorderly conduct is still open. At the press conference he related that his attorney obtained a copy of the police report that served as the basis for the complaint. He read the relevant section: “Gordon can be seen walking in a circle. That’s it. My attorney is pretty confident that this last citation will be resolved in our favor.”
After months of having to defend themselves against spurious legal actions, one citizen activist decided to go on the offensive and sue the Department of Administration for violating his constitutional rights in federal court. Michael Kissick and the ACLU of Wisconsin filed suit in February. They hope to stop the DoA from requiring permits for demonstrations in the Capitol, and to put an end to the police harassment of people who gather without a permit.
Kissick claims that the arrests have had a chilling effect on his ability to exercise his First Amendment rights in the Capitol. “I have always attempted to follow the law while expressing my political views,” he said. “I resent being treated as a criminal for speaking freely in a public forum.”
Larry Dupuis, legal director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, asserts that “the State’s overbroad permitting scheme burdens core political speech, which should receive the highest degree of First Amendment protection. It is preventing citizens from engaging in expressive activity and sharing their views where their leaders exercise power.”
Tomorrow Kissick’s case will receive a hearing in federal court. In its motion, the State of Wisconsin claims that since the court case was filed, the rules “have been substantially revised” and therefore the case should be dismissed.
Regardless of the outcome in court tomorrow, the Solidarity Sing Along will continue to provide some of the last vestiges of public dissent to Walker’s regressive social and economic policies. For the rest of this week, you can find them outside at the foot of the State Street steps since there are permitted events in the rotunda.
For those of you who can’t make it, here’s one of their songs from yesterday:
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.