Wisconsin’s Walker fails to squelch free speech

MADISON, Wisc. – The movement to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who earlier this year stripped public employees of their collective bargaining rights, has been marked by large scale protests. Some 30,000 people rallied around the Capitol just last month. Earlier this year, thousands staged a round-the clock-occupation of the state Capitol.

In order to put an end to these public demonstrations for workers’ rights, Gov. Walker used the Department of Administration, the agency in charge of state facilities and run by a Walker appointee, to institute new rules curbing free speech.

But on Dec. 19, over 200 people gathered without permission at the Capitol despite the new access policy.  

One of the many requirements under the new Walker policy is a minimum 72-hour advance written notice in order to get a permit for any assembly of four or more people for the purpose of promoting any cause.

The policy, as written, also requires any individual who wishes to hand out handbills or fliers to obtain a permit for that as well.  

Further, state bureaucrats can hold groups that organize demonstrations liable for the actions of those in attendance and others beyond their control.  Groups will be required to cover the cost of police and custodial staffing for their event, and the determination of cost will be made by the DOA.  

Any advance police staffing decisions will be based on the content of the demonstrators’ speech, and the determined potential for conflict with controversial or unpopular groups.

The state provides no waiver. Many say the policy gives state bureaucrats far too much discretion to assign liability and limit or deny permits to disfavored groups and demonstrators. Plus, critics say, groups that represent poor and low income Wisconsinites will bear a disproportionate burden.

Other critics say DOA seems to be trying to shield the public officials from criticism, and is doing so with complete disregard of democracy and constitutional rights.

The crowd at the unpermitted demonstration was a mixture of people of all ages and backgrounds. It included people from labor unions, Occupy Wisconsin, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Coalition to Recall Scott Walker, and many other groups and individuals. 

Despite the seriousness of the issue, the crowd passed the time peacefully by chanting, “This is what democracy looks like,” and singing, “We Shall Overcome.”  

And, keeping with the spirit of the season, holiday carole lyrics were modified to call for Scott Walker’s recall.

Several people read from the U.S. Constitution First Amendment as well.

One observer noted that two people tried to create a fight, for the sole purpose of getting Capitol police involved. The crowds and demonstrators did not react, and the provocateurs were asked to leave the rally.

Even though the new policy prohibits banners from being hung in the Capitol Rotunda, the crowd effectively ignored all the new rules, and fully exercised their First Amendment rights.  

No one was arrested. The demonstration was peaceful, and even contained an element of holiday cheer! 

The recall movement is pressing forward to Jan. 17, 2012, which is the filing deadline to submit the required 540,000 signatures to force a recall election.

Photo: (PW/Syrus Mehrparast)