Gov. Scott Walker’s administration dropped the permits required for protesting groups in the Capitol Tuesday after the American Civil Liberties Union sued the administration in January.
Under the settlement, the Department of Administration will allow five days of demonstration if protesters give the DOA a two-day notification. The department will also keep its permitting process in place but will not require permits to hold protests.
The DOA’s permit process originally came under fire after citizen arrests become commonplace at the daily Solidarity Singer demonstrations held in the rotunda.
Groups of 12 or fewer people will not need to obtain a permit or provide notification to express freedom of speech in the Capitol, and groups of 12 or more participants can opt to give notice instead of applying for a permit. The process of giving notice requires two business days of processing and then is valid for five cumulative days.
Although DOA Secretary Mike Huebsch said the permitting process had been upheld as constitutional multiple times and the process has been part of the state administrative code since 1979, he said in a statement that the department and the ACLU came to a settlement to avoid trial expenses and time.
University of Wisconsin professor Michael Kissick and the ACLU of Wisconsin sued the DOA for violating the First Amendment after Kissick was involved in Solidarity Singalong protests.
“I think this is a balance and a compromise,” Steven Porter, the attorney who filed on behalf of Kissick and the ACLU, said. “It balances First Amendment free speech rights against legitimate government administrative interests in a way that is first of all unique in compared to any other public facility or capitol building in the country.”
Porter added the settlement is innovative and is in accordance with what the spirit of the state Capitol should be.
Porter said he was “pleasantly surprised” at the result of the lawsuit since he had anticipated a much longer trial that could have extended until January 2014.
However, without a settlement, it was unlikely that any meaningful progress would have been made, Porter added.
“All the judge really could have done was to strike down the existing the policies and this judge would not have rewritten them,” Porter said. “The point is that if the judge thought the policies were unconstitutional and all he could do was strike him down that would really not serve us well because then the DOA would be in the position of promulgating new rules and then we would probably be back in the same position having to challenge those rules.”
Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, who was arrested in 2011 after her children held signs during a protest, said while the settlement is a move in the right direction, she still has questions on the rules for groups of 12 people.
“Where does 12 come from?” Sargent said. “I have six people in my family, and if I were to join another family and someone has a button on, or wearing a t-shirt, or holding a sign, would that open us up [to citations]? I’m not sure.”
The DOA declined to comment outside of their statement. Calls to Huebsch were not returned.
Calls and emails to Walker’s office were not returned.