Walker’s Lackeys Threaten Free Speech Again

The Walker administration’s attempt to silence the voices of peaceful singers in the capitol rotunda failed yesterday, as the Wisconsin Capitol Police’s apparent attempt to declare an unlawful assembly went unheard and unheeded by the sixty or so people participating in the daily Solidarity Sing Along.

Last week a federal judge told the Capitol Police that their threshold for requiring permits for groups holding events in the rotunda was too low. In his temporary injunction order, Judge William Conley said that it was reasonable to ask groups of more than 20 people to obtain a permit for the use of the space.

In an attempt to interpret the order as a win instead of a setback, the Capitol Police have apparently decided that the order gives them license to declare an unlawful assembly whenever there are more than twenty-one people in the rotunda.

At a public hearing on changes to these administrative rules last week, nearly two dozen people, including the chief of police for the University of Wisconsin, testified passionately against the attempts by the Walker administration to quash one of the last venues for people to communicate directly and publicly with legislators and the governor about public policy issues like education, health care policy, the budget, environmental protection, jobs and many other topics.

Photo by Rebecca Kemble
<i>Photo by Rebecca Kemble</i>

On Monday one officer quietly read a statement indicating their intention to declare an unlawful assembly before the Solidarity Sing Along began, but no such declaration was ever made. On Tuesday a similar statement was apparently read sotto voce and a capella once at noon, and two more times through a megaphone later in the hour.

This is what was written on the paper that the police officers were reading from:

“The Capitol Police has determined that your group is larger than 21, which requires a permit. We are declaring this an unlawful event. Please move your group outside or disperse immediately. If you do not, the entire group is subject to arrest.”

Each of the statements was inaudible to anyone not in the immediate vicinity. The officers seemed to be going through the motions of reading the statement without making a serious attempt to get people’s attention. They chose to make the later announcements when the group was singing “Which Side Are You On?” and “The Internationale”:

Lt. Sloey, who read the half-hearted declaration from one floor above the singers, couldn’t have planned for better timing to enact a most surreal spectacle just as people were singing these lyrics:

And so begins the final drama


In the streets and in the fields


We stand unbowed before their armour


We defy their guns and shields


When we fight, provoked by their aggression

Let us be inspired by life and love


For though they offer us concessions


Change will not come from above

Singers claim that it is their First Amendment right to assemble and sing in the state capitol building as they are petitioning the government to redress their multiple and ever-growing list of grievances. They say that these attempts to skirt these constitutional protections for their activities through administrative rules are themselves illegal activities on the part of the Walker administration.

They claim that their activities do not rise to the level of behavior required for the police to declare them an unlawful assembly, and they in no way endanger public safety or health. Many also maintain that they are not an organized group with a leader, but rather an event with a loose-knit group of people that changes from day to day so a permit should not be required. If there is a permitted event inside the rotunda, the group sings outside.

During a brief lull between songs yesterday, Greg Gordon read this statement to the group, poking fun at the Capitol Police:

"We, the citizens of Wisconsin will be enforcing the provisions of the temporary injunction. If we determine that the Capitol Police are engaging in behavior intended to chill free speech, we will declare the Walker Administration unlawful. If citizens are illegally ordered to move out or disperse, the entire rotunda will be subject to tuneful dissent."

In the past, participants in the Sing Along have received citations in the mail or hand delivered to their homes or places of work in the days or even weeks after the alleged infraction of holding a banner or conducting a song. Police officers would not say whether they would be issuing citations to people after the fact, or whether any arrests would ever take place.

Over the past two years with each attempt to crackdown on the group, it gains more participants. And those people become more dedicated than ever to protecting free speech rights at the capitol. It’s almost as if the Capitol Police plan their rule enforcement activities to strengthen the singers’ resolve. Almost.

Photo by Rebecca Kemble
<i>Photo by Rebecca Kemble</i>

Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.