Sunday, August 4, 2013

Capitol permitting policy too restrictive for a "public forum"

Groups of people frequenting the Capitol building shouldn't have to justify their presence there

In the week and a half since Solidarity Sing Along participants have witnessed the beefed-up enforcement of the Capitol building’s unfair permitting rules, a lot of people have asked the question: why don’t they just get a permit?

It would seem to be an easy solution. No one has said they would be denied permission to use the grounds for their sing alongs, and they could protest the Scott Walker administration in a legal, permissible way.

But should the freedom to speak your mind, to express your grievances, and to address your representatives really come with the requirement of asking for permission to do so first?

The rules for the Capitol building are far too restrictive, and much worse extremely vague. For instance, if an “unlawful assembly” takes place, Capitol police have the right to arrest citizens who aren’t taking part in the demonstration at all, who may be there as observers. Indeed, members of the local media have been taken into custody during the Solidarity Sing Along, their mere presence the basis for their detention.

Beyond that, there is an underlying question that needs to be addressed: where does the line stop? At what point do we need to “regulate” free speech, and at what point does regulation become an infringement?

If the Department of Administration can declare an “unlawful assembly” inside the Capitol, can they declare one outside as well? It isn’t part of their rules yet, but that scenario could become a real possibility, being established on the same standards the current indoor policy stands upon.

The Wisconsin State Capitol is considered a special place not just in our state, but in our nation as well. The rotunda itself is likened to a public square, and “functions, both literally and symbolically, as a city center and is fully utilized as a public space to which all have claim,” according to the official nomination of the Capitol to the list of National Historic Landmarks.

Understandably, there is a need for people to clear the space if others have asked permission to use it for private functions; the singers, for their part, have respected this concept, removing themselves without incident when events are taking place indoors, and have taken their singing outdoors, at times doing so in the cold winter winds.

But if no one has reserved the space, if a public area is open and MEANT to be free, what right does the DOA have in requiring people to seek permission to be there, no matter what their numbers may be? If a peaceful, yet determined group decides to utilize a taxpayer-funded forum that is meant to be accessible to everyone, don’t they share the right to use it themselves, as either individuals or as an assembly?

So there’s a very simple reason why the singers don’t get a permit: they shouldn’t have to get one. What’s more, obtaining a permit merely legitimizes the Department of Administration’s self-created powers to accept or deny people’s rights to be in the rotunda. The people, however, don’t need to ask permission -- they are the legitimate owners of the forum, and as such deserve to be granted the space when it serves their purpose.

That comes with a few caveats, for sure. People in the rotunda cannot be obscene, cannot restrict or infringe upon others’ rights, and cannot interfere with the business of the Capitol building. But with those conditions being met, it behooves the government to provide a legitimate reason why they need this permitting policy in place, beyond their own conveniences or preferences.

Up until this point, the DOA has yet to provide such a reasonable justification, and it seems unlikely that they will find one in the future.


  1. The whole issue is that they are NOT petitioning their government. Perhaps in the beginning one could argue they were, but now they are simply irritating flies on the Capital Rotunda. They are not making a political statement. They are singing made-up songs that taunt. The behavior is simply childish.

    Now, if they were holding Q&A sessions, speaking clearly and concisely, hosting a rally, etc., that would make sense-that would not need a permit.
    Right now they are impeding on the work and learning environment of our Capital. The purpose of a permit is to regulate groups, ensure appropriate space is available and keep the peace. I cannot imagine why anyone would want to tour our beautiful building knowing this moronic display is going on. I myself will never be there when the "singers" are-the racket is immense. You cannot even hear yourself think, let alone their "words". They make a much bigger statement when singing outside.

    This display has gone on long enough. Wouldn't it "behoove" the singers to find a legitimate way to "air their grievances"?


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