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Scott Walker's Crackdown on Free Speech Backfires

Scott Walker's Crackdown on Free Speech Backfires
Mon, 8/5/2013 - by Carl Gibson
This article originally appeared on Reader Supported News

"The right of the people, peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition their government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged." - Wisconsin State Constitution, Article 1, Section 4

Remember that part in the Bill of Rights where Free Speech and Free Assembly are guaranteed provided the citizen requesting those freedoms does so upon the approval of his or her permit request? I don't remember that last part, either. Because if you have to ask your government for permission to protest it, then you never had the right to protest your government in the first place.

I was one of 30 arrested on Tuesday, July 30th, the fourth day of mass arrests at the Solidarity Singalong at the Wisconsin State Capitol. According to exhibit 11 of the Kissick vs. Huebsch lawsuit filed by the ACLU, over 90% of arrests ordered by Chief David Erwin in the year he's been in charge of the capitol PD have been thrown out in court.

The arrest count is now over 100 since capitol police first started arresting singers on Wednesday, July 24. The SSA is a tradition that came about as part of the 2011 uprising. Wisconsinites peacefully sing songs of resistance and freedom in the capitol rotunda every weekday for an hour. Whenever another group obtains a permit for the rotunda during that time, the singalong moves outside out of respect for the permitted event, as they did for a Tea Party group calling themselves the "We Got a Permit Singers" on July 29.

Governor Scott Walker has been trying hard to chill the voices of the singers for a long while now. His administration first imposed strict rules stating any group larger than 4 on the capitol grounds needed a permit. Several components of that rule were rejected by a federal judge, but new permitting rules now restrict groups of 20 people or more from gathering in the capitol without a permit.

However, the preliminary injunction states that the Wisconsin capitol rotunda is unique in that it was intended to be used as a public forum for citizens to exercise their constitutional rights, since the people of Wisconsin built and paid for the capitol with their blood, sweat, tears, and tax dollars. Judge Conley stated concerns over the lack of constitutionality for the new permitting rules, and a final ruling will be issued after the official trial this coming winter.

What's most important to know is that the capitol police are not required to enforce the new permitting laws; they're actively choosing to arrest singers and give them citations of $200.50. Capitol police are even threatening passive spectators with arrest. My citation says "no permit" as the reason I was arrested. But since not having a permit isn't technically an arrestable offense, the official explanation is an "unlawful assembly." But the specific statute in Wisconsin law only deems an assembly to be unlawful if the assembly is blocking exits or otherwise endangering the safety of those inside. The solidarity singalong makes it a point to keep all pathways into the rotunda open, reminding spectators between songs that the capitol is the people's house, and all are welcome to it.

While Gov. Walker prides himself on his supposed frugality with state tax dollars, it's important to point out the discrepancy in his saying there's not enough to go around for public employees to have a job that guarantees a living wage and adequate benefits, but there's apparently enough for capitol police, state troopers, and conservation officers from the Department of Natural Resources to arrest political dissidents, all paid at an estimated $25 an hour. There are also hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on the court process, for assistant attorneys general to handle the prosecution (paid anywhere between $17 and $55 an hour), and the state to provide public defenders for all the protesters who can't afford an attorney or find a pro bono civil rights attorney, not to mention tax money to pay all the judges needed to handle each case.

There are also numerous staffing needs for each case, like court reporters, bailiffs (at least one of each gender), file management, copying, witness fees, investigation costs, police reports, and time off work for all defendants. Those costs well exceed the $200.50 fine given to each protester, meaning the state of Wisconsin is losing money hand over fist to go through this process for each case, when most of them are dismissed outright.

But most Wisconsinites know the double standards in the Walker administration are plentiful, like how there's plenty of money to hand out millions in corporate welfare without even conducting the grant process in a lawful manner, but not enough to keep teachers employed. Just like how Walker's administration is fine with the carrying of guns in the capitol out in the open, but not the carrying of tunes.

As the news of the mass arrests at the singalong attracts the attention of national cable news networks, Walker's approval rating has taken a plunge in the latest polls. It certainly didn't help that Walker spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis was caught lying to the press about the singalong in the rotunda having forced a wedding party to move outside in the rain (the wedding party moved of their own accord because of the beautiful weather that day). But the real reason for Walker's suddenly ordering his palace guard to arrest political dissidents could be that he's back in hot water with the release of new John Doe documents.

The newly-released emails are from the 2010 Walker campaign, and show that the Milwaukee County executive was actively having his staff take on campaigning duties while working on county time. The emails in question are in regard to the death of a 15-year-old boy after a loose concrete slab in a Milwaukee parking garage fell on his head in Summer of 2010, in the peak of the election season. Five of Walker's former aides have been convicted in the scandal, but so far, Walker himself has remained unscathed. However, it would be easy to interpret this latest move against protesters as a distraction from something that could criminally implicate Gov. Walker.

In any case, 2014 is right around the corner, and Gov. Walker is having a hard time shaking the vindictive bully image that has been most associated with his administration. He's making no secret of his 2016 presidential aspirations, and may use that as his get-out-of-jail-free-card excuse for not having to face the voters of Wisconsin for a third time. But don't worry America - even Walker's furious campaigning an fundraising has him polling at only 2.1 percent among the rest of the presumed candidates at the 2016 Iowa caucus. Hopefully sooner than later, Scott Walker will go back to being just another pasty white guy with a forgettable name.

If you support the solidarity singers and want to make a donation to the First Amendment Protection Fund, go to July 30th's arrests will account for more than $1,080 in fees if all 30 arrestees request a jury trial, which is recommended. These singers have already borne enough of a burden with their arrests. Any donation to the legal fund is greatly appreciated.


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