WSJ: Wisconsinites decry new anti-free speech Walker policy on protests in the capitol

December 6, 2011
Mary Spicuzza

Protesters accused state officials of trying to silence critics of Gov. Scott Walker at a cranky meeting Tuesday to discuss a new policy requiring more permits — and security and cleanup fees — for demonstrations at the state Capitol.

Angry critics of the policy, which requires organizers of events at the Capitol or other state buildings involving four or more people to get a permit at least 72 hours in advance, gathered in the Capitol basement and demanded answers from Walker administration officials.

But at the meeting, the first of three informational sessions planned, they did not get many specific answers about what would happen to groups that break requirements for protests, exhibits and other events.

Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs declined to say whether he would arrest those who violate the policy, such as members of the "Solidarity Singalong" who gather on weekdays in the Capitol rotunda and outside to sing during lunchtime and have repeatedly said they don't plan to apply for permits.

"I am not going to show that hand today and say, 'There's going to be arrests, there's not going to be arrests,'" Tubbs said. "I think that's not fair to the situation, because we don't know what that situation is going to be."

Tubbs said he would continue to seek "voluntary compliance" and believes the permitting process has worked well in the past.

But critics said the policy will be challenged in court because it infringes on free speech.

"Are you aware that this policy violates the United States Constitution?" asked Jenna Pope, a frequent protester at the Capitol.

"We don't believe it does," said Chris Schoenherr, deputy secretary for the state Department of Administration.

Schoenherr said officials began working on the policy in March, in the wake of protests over Walker's measure to effectively end collective bargaining for public workers. During February and March, tens of thousands of protesters packed the Capitol and Capitol Square for days on end. Smaller protests have continued.

During a court battle over access to the Capitol this year, administration officials said protesters caused $7.5 million in damage, including wear and tear and residue left by blue painter's tape used to hold up signs. But they backed away from that claim and dramatically lowered cost estimates. The state did spend millions in additional security costs.

The updated policy was unveiled by the DOA on Thursday, the same day it officially went into effect. But state officials said there would be an educational period through next week to help familiarize groups with the new requirements. The administration said its goal is to provide equal and safe access to the Capitol and other state buildings, and the policy allows for some "spontaneous events" precipitated by unforeseen events.

"Number one, we want to have a policy that is very clear and enforced evenly," Schoenherr said.

He said the administration's legal team worked on the policy "to make sure it will hold up to a court challenge."

But Democratic lawmakers and other critics slammed the policy as unconstitutional. Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, who attended Tuesday's meeting, said she has "deep concerns" about requiring permits for political speech, especially new rules that say a group of four or more people must get a permit for political activity at the Capitol. She also warned that too many unanswered questions remain.

"These policies were designed to address problems that don't exist," she said. "We need to get some answers."

Also Tuesday, 22 Democratic state lawmakers sent a letter to DOA Secretary Mike Huebsch calling the policy unconstitutional and discriminatory.

Stacy Harbaugh, a spokeswoman for the ACLU of Wisconsin who attended Tuesday's session, said the ACLU is reviewing its options when asked whether the group would sue over the policy.

But John Schaeffer, who said he attended several counter-protests at the Capitol, told people at the meeting they should turn their attention to limits on demonstrations at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.