Walker's New Capitol Police Chief Cracks Down on the First Amendment

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Walker's New Capitol Police Chief Cracks Down on the First Amendment

On September 5, 2012, eight people were arrested, handcuffed, and ultimately given citations for simply holding signs in the Wisconsin State Capitol. This may come as a surprise to the hundreds of thousands of people who marched through the Capitol in February and March of 2011 proudly holding home-made signs that denounced Governor Scott Walker’s attack on collective bargaining rights, but there’s a new sheriff in town -- a new Capitol Police chief to be exact.

In July of 2012, David M. Erwin was named as the new Chief of the Wisconsin Capitol Police Department, succeeding Chief Charles Tubbs who was widely applauded for maintaining public safety while allowing protesters to exercise their First Amendment rights in the Capitol during Wisconsin's historic labor uprising. Chief Erwin previously served as the captain in charge of Governor Walker’s security with the Wisconsin State Patrol.

Chief Erwin made it clear from the beginning that under his watch, the Department of Administration’s controversial access policy for the Capitol would be followed more strictly. The group of citizens who participate in the daily sing-along, and those who visit the Capitol to hold signs and socialize have been expecting a crackdown, and it has arrived.

Gandhi Quote Lands Protester in Cuffs

On Tuesday a small group of people were given warnings by the Capitol Police, and told that they could not display their signs on the 1st floor of the rotunda. On Wednesday Bart Munger, one of those warned the day before, was arrested and handcuffed for holding a 3’ x 7’ sign that said “An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so. –Mahatma Gandhi”.

After being cited and released Munger returned to the 1st floor of the Capitol to donate blood for the Red Cross, which has a permit to be in the Capitol for the whole week to do a blood drive. Shortly thereafter Joseph Skulan was arrested and handcuffed for holding an 8.5’’ x 11’’ sheet of paper with Article I, Section 4 of the Wisconsin State Constitution which says, “The right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government or any department thereof, shall never be abridged.”

Over the next few hours six more people were arrested, handcuffed, cited and then released. Each of them was given a ticket for $200.50 for violating Administrative Rule 2.07(2), 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 DOA enforcing Rule 2.07(2) against people holding signs appears to be at odds with a recent court decision. On Wednesday, Dane County Judge Frank J. Remington ruled in a motion for summary judgment that Rule 2.07(2) does not apply to handheld signs, only signs that are affixed to walls or free-standing. Though the word "display" could arguably apply to handheld signs, Judge Remington wrote that "the term 'displayed' implies something like a freestanding exhibit showcased in the Capitol, not an individual holding a handmade sign over their head."

Jeri Troia, and Chris Taylor (a grandmother and frequent visitor to the Capitol, not the State Representative) were arrested for holding shirts made and distributed by “Muslims for Life,” a group partnering with the Red Cross to help with the blood drive. Ultimately four of the eight people who were cited donated blood to the Red Cross.

During one of the arrests a Capitol Police officer told a citizen “If you are holding a sign today or any day in the future, you will be issued a citation and you will be arrested.” Each of those arrested was given a similar warning. One man was given a warning for holding a blank 3’ x 1’ posterboard.

Former Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, who negotiated with the Capitol Police and the Walker administration and helped return the Capitol to normalcy after it was locked down in March 2011, shook her head at the latest developments. "Tragically, this administration and its appointees take themselves more seriously than their duties and obligations under the Wisconsin Constitution." While many expect that Dane County judges may toss out these citations, others suspect that the Walker administration will find new ways of attempting to enforce the rules perhaps by sending the cases to the Republican Attorney General.

The daily "Solidarity Sing-Along", a loosely organized group of people who meet at the Capitol every weekday to sing songs about unions and social justice, is outside this week so as not to interfere with the permitted Red Cross blood drive, but those who attend the daily event are unsure of how the police will react when they return to singing inside the rotunda. What they do know is they are determined to exercise their right to free speech, and their right to peaceably assemble, and they will be there every day just like they have for the past year and a half.

Harriet Rowan

Harriet Blair Rowan is a reporter for the Center for Media and Democracy. She majored in Latin American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and also extensively studied the Middle East. She speaks Spanish and Arabic and lived in Morocco for a year, studying the language and culture.

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