Free speech in Madison
No clock is necessary to realize when it’s noon in the Wisconsin State Capitol. A group calling themselves the Solidarity Sing Along gathers daily in the rotunda for an hour long lunch noise session.
After the around the clock protests in 2011 dissipated, the Wisconsin Department of Administration (DOA) implemented the State Facilities Access Policy. Permits would be required to “Hold any event (such as a performance, wedding ceremony, presentation, meeting, or rally) in the interior of a [state] building, including the State Capitol.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin joined a University of Wisconsin – Madison professor and filed a lawsuit claiming the permit requirement violates the First Amendment.
On July 8, Judge William M. Conley of the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, ruled the court will enjoin defendants from requiring permitting for “events” in the Capitol rotunda of 20 persons or less. In other words, groups anticipating over 20 people would require a permit.
Starting July 24, after Judge Conley’s decision, the Capitol police began issuing citations and arresting Solidarity Singers when their group exceeded 20 people.
Marty Beil, Wisconsin’s executive director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), who was recently arrested in the Capitol, posted on Facebook: “It’s time for Union shirts and Union songs. Monday thru Thursday the Singers assemble in the Capitol rotunda from 12:00 noon until 1:-00 (sic) pm.”
However, the hour long sing and shout along is only part of the protesters’ antics. On any day a visitor to the State Capitol could see messages, some of which are too obscene to appear in a newspaper.
Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. opined in Schenck v. United States Freedom of Speech trial; “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. … The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”
Daily, children of all ages visit the State Capitol and its surrounding area on field trips or with their families. How does a parent, grandparent, or teacher respond to a child when they ask what does that [obscene phrase] mean? The right of every visitor to the Capitol is weighed against the protesters’ right to free speech.
The First Amendment renders the freedom of speech or the right of the people peaceably to assemble. However, testimony presented to Judge Conley stated “certain unpermitted Solidarity Sing Alongs have, at times, already impeded attempts by tourists to view the Capitol, attempts by legislators to address their constituents, and attempts by others to get ordinary work done in offices throughout the building.”
Requiring permits offers the Capitol police an indication of the staffing requirements for each day. The Solidarity Sing Along group argues their right to free speech is being trampled because they have to apply for a permit.
Protesters maintain in “the people’s building” they should be able to do whatever they want. However, what is lost in their assumption is the essential right of everyone else’s safety and free speech.