Holding signs now citation-worthy at state Capitol
Post by Christie Taylor on 9/5/2012 4:03pm
Updated: 11 a.m. 9/06/2012
The issue of free expression in the state Capitol continues to raise its head, with citations for holding signs the newest change under new Capitol Police Chief David Erwin.
The ACLU and Senate Majority Leader Mark Miller (D-Monona) have already weighed in with concerns about Erwin's stated intent to begin strictly enforcing newly-codified Department of Administration rules requiring groups of four or more to apply for permits to hold demonstrations in the building. Miller has requested that Capitol police consult with the "co-equal branches of government," the Legislature and the state Supreme Court, prior to making changes, and the ACLU of Wisconsin has called the rules an unreasonable abridgement of first amendment rights.
It now appears holding signs without a permit is a citation-worthy offense, following a tangle between Capitol police and a small group of people holding signs on the first floor (the Capitol floors begin with the ground floor, the first floor, the second floor, and so on) Wednesday late morning and midday. In a video posted on Facebook Wednesday afternoon, officers can be seen handcuffing protester Bart Munger, and then telling another man, Ed Kuharski, that he's received a verbal warning for holding a sign.
"If you come back in and you're holding a sign today or on any day in the future, without a permit, you will be issued a citation, you will be arrested," the officer says. He then addresses another protester, telling her that if she did not remove the sign, she would be issued a citation. The officers, at least half a dozen total, can be seen confiscating some of the signs as well.
In the video, the same officer said the citations would be issued under the "displays and decorations" section of the administrative rules, which states, "No displays, signs, banners, placards, decorations or graphic or artistic material may be erected, attached, mounted or displayed within or on the building or the grounds of any state office building or facility without the express written authority of the department." The rule further prohibits "any graphic or artistic material advertising, promoting, or identifying a commercial enterprise or a political activity" except with department approval.
"It's been the policy the whole time," an officer told a woman who asked why signs were suddenly a problem. However, ACLU of Wisconsin communications director Stacy Harbaugh noted, signs have not posed a problem since the more active days of the anti-Walker protests, when lawsuits were still pending to clarify the public's right to access the building.
"The lawsuit is settled," Harbaugh said. "We saw the "free speech zone" signs go away. We saw signs tolerated on the first and to some extent the second floors."
For example, at the Capitol Christmas tree ceremony last December when former chief Charles Tubbs was still at the helm, a man who had hung a recall-related sign off the first floor balcony was told he needed to hold it or it would be considered a display.
Harbaugh said the event was distinct from the day's Solidarity Sing-Along, which though ongoing at the time, was held outside the building.
"What happened today were individuals who went inside to use their Capitol building for demonstrations, something that could happen any time in our capitol's history," Harbaugh said.
She said that while the qualification of signs under the "displays" rule would be a matter for attorneys, the incident itself spoke to the rule's requirement that groups as small as four people get permits "unreasonable and abridges their right to demonstrate and their right to go to the Capitol building and hold signs and protest the government."
Capitol police had not returned a message requesting an interview as of this posting.
Update: According to reporting by the Progressive, eight people were arrested out of fourteen total protesters. Kuharski also told Dane101 that the verbal warnings about future arrest indicated that they would apply "always and forever until the end of time."
Full disclosure: Stacy Harbaugh sits on the Dane101 board of directors.
Christie Taylor (@ctaylsaurus) covers science, environment, and, depending on the season, state politics for dane101. She verbs a lot of nouns, including rollerskates, radio, and Kurt Vonnegut. A Madison native, she's not sure she'll ever quite manage to leave Wisconsin, and that's just fine by her. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.