Gov. Scott Walker’s administration unveiled a new policy Thursday that would hold demonstrators liable for police and repair costs. The administration defended the bill saying it simply “clarifies existing rules.” In addition to enforcement personnel time and damage costs, the police could also require advance payments or liability insurance.
In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, the famous activist posited that “one who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” This is the heart of free speech; in opining, one needs to be able to live up to the consequences. This seems to justify the administration’s policy of holding demonstrators liable for their protests. But does it really?
Edward Fallone, an assistant professor at Marquette, notes that “you can’t really put a price tag on the First Amendment.” Money has always played, and continues to play, an ever increasing role in politics. It is incredibly important that demonstrators be able to deal with the consequences of any free speech exercise. But what if those consequences limit the ability of some groups to express themselves more than others?
Such consequences, I have no doubt, would be struck down in any court. Sure, they might, on paper, apply equally to all. However, the reality is that the middle and lower classes will always have a harder time bearing any such costs than the upper class will.
Chris Ahmuty, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, points out an especially worrisome facet of the policy: state officials could charge or require insurance of different amounts according to their own personal interests. The administration needs to qualify this part of the policy, or there will be some serious questions of ethics raised every time it is invoked.
Free speech is intended to be exactly that: free. Wouldn’t charging protesters and requiring their buying of insurance be akin to the poll taxes southern states once imposed on voters? Yes, they apply to all, but they burden some groups much more than others, in the same manner requiring voter IDs would.
But I cannot say I am all that surprised. Walker likes to run Wisconsin like a business, instead of a political institution. His policies seem to only be based in wishful economics, not the reality of the citizens on whose behalf he is supposed to work. The administration’s new policy, on its face, seems economically justifiable. But when one looks deeper, one must acknowledge it will burden certain demonstrators more than others. Like so many things in politics, the face value description is misleading.
Reginald Young (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a junior majoring in legal studies and Scandinavian studies.