In response to recent rulings by Dane County (Wisconsin) judges and a federal lawsuit filed by the Wisconsin chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, attorneys from the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) have been working with Governor Scott Walker's Department of Administration (DOA) to modify portions of the Wisconsin administrative code and rules relating to gatherings in the Wisconsin State Capitol. Since September, the Capitol Police have issued about 120 citations for various alleged infractions of those rules by people gathered in the Capitol to voice opposition to Walker's policies. Many of the citations have already been dismissed (or soon will be) by the DOJ based on rulings by local judges. Others are awaiting court action. So far, none have been successfully prosecuted.
Sources close to the parties in the lawsuit state that the DOJ attorneys will ask the federal judge assigned to the case to delay any proceedings until the state has a chance to make the modifications, which might even include statutory changes that would have to be voted on by the Wisconsin legislature.
I'm going to be crude. That takes balls. I have no idea how the judge will react to the Department of Administration's tacit admission that the access rules they have been enforcing for the past six months are unconstitutional, but the DOA must feel that throwing themselves on the mercy of the court is less embarrassing than having their asses handed to them in an official decision.
In the long run it probably doesn't matter if they wait until later or bite the bullet and do it now. They will have to change the rules, maybe even the law, but either way it's a win for citizens who have been assembling in the Capitol daily for the past two years.
None of this is official. There have been no statements from the ACLU, the Walker administration, or the Wisconsin Department of Justice, but all indications are that work on the changes began over a month ago, about the same time DOA officials seemed to suspend their "crackdown" against citizens singing and/or holding signs in the Capitol.
This is from the ACLU of Wisconsin press release that announced the federal lawsuit two weeks ago:
DOA adopted the permit rules in November 2011, following widespread demonstrations in and around the Capitol earlier that year. Under the new policy, groups as small as four must obtain prior permission from the government before they engage in expression “for the purpose of actively promoting any cause.”There are no indications that changes to the state's policies will result in Sing Along participants applying for permits to assemble in the Capitol rotunda. Many have stated in the past their firm belief that no permit is required, based on Article I, Section 4 of the state's Constitution:
The new rules also prohibit people from gathering in the Capitol for any performance, ceremony, presentation, meeting or rally without a permit.
The permit policy creates a chilling effect on free speech in the Rotunda, a public space with unique symbolic significance. Surrounded by legislators’ offices, the governor’s office and the state Supreme Court chambers, the Rotunda historically has been devoted to public debate of issues important to the people of Wisconsin.
“The State’s overbroad permitting scheme burdens core political speech, which should receive the highest degree of First Amendment protection,” said Larry Dupuis, Legal Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “It is preventing citizens from engaging in expressive activity and sharing their views where their leaders exercise power.”
The ACLU lawsuit argues that the protests in the Capitol, including the well-known Solidarity Singalong group, which has never held a permit, have been largely peaceful and non-disruptive, rendering the DOA scheme unnecessary.
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.