With small bands of protesters and rallies calling for the governor’s recall acting as fixtures at the Capitol building, Democratic legislators are criticizing the policies for gatherings, saying they restrict free speech. Proponents say these policies aim to guarantee safety for employees.
A Feb. 1 letter sent to the Department of Administration, written by various Democratic legislators and spearheaded by Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, detailed what they believe are unconstitutional infringements upon the rights to free speech with the gatherings.
“The effect of these policies is to make it more difficult for people to express themselves,” Taylor said. “These policies are chilling people from public speech and when that is happening there is a sense of urgency with the issue.”
The Capitol access policies, which went into effect Dec. 16, 2011, set out certain guidelines for those assembled to rally, such as requirements to acquire permits, cover law enforcement costs and limit banner sizes and placements. The policies were already revised once before the winter holidays with certain clauses removed.
According to Taylor, those revisions were positive changes.
First, a provision that required any distributer of literature to hold a permit was changed and limited to commercial literature, Taylor said.
Second, a clarification was made that classified sexual orientation as a protected class, preventing bias when receiving permits, she added.
However, even with such changes, Taylor believes that revisions to the problematic policies remain to be made. She said that currently, groups as small as four people must obtain a permit to assemble in the Capitol.
In addition to calling the requirement “unnecessary,” Taylor also sees a differentiation in treatment between groups of protesters and groups of gatherings.
“By distinguishing whether or not you are there for a rally or for a gathering — which is a performance, ceremony, presentation or meeting — is not permissible constitutionality, because it is looking at the situation from a content base,” Taylor said.
Taylor said she is uncertain why the concerns detailed in the letter were not addressed in the first revision of the policies, but seeks to continue a dialogue with the Department of Administration.
If there continues to be an unwillingness to address the concerns, legal action will be attempted, Taylor said, noting the policies have begun to discourage people from coming to the Capitol.
Although Taylor is unsure of why the DOA has not addressed the policy concerns, Mike Mikalsen, spokesperson for Rep. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, said Gov. Scott Walker’s administration has addressed the issue because of basic security problems.
According to Mikalsen, members of the Republican Party working in the building have been harassed and threatened with acts of violence in the past year.
Mikalsen said the goal of the Democrats’ letter is to keep a level of intimidation in the Capitol, and he doubted the Republican Party would support the changes the Democrats want.
“We don’t believe that the rules go far enough for the safety of the building,” Mikalsen said. “The Democrats are in favor of making the building dysfunctional for the Walker administration to pass any legislation. Taylor can hide behind freedoms of free speech, but no one has the right to intimidate and harm people.”