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Wisconsin's New Free Speech Restrictions

Since the February uprising in Wisconsin, which began with a three-week occupation of the Capitol in Madison, the building has been home to a variety of demonstrations and political actions.  What perhaps stands out the most is the Solidarity Sing-along, which draws upwards of 100 participants and has been going on for more than 40 weeks.  The singers gather in the rotunda each weekday at noon to sing songs that include both traditional labor and protest songs and some new songs penned in the months since Governor Scott Walker first introduced his plans to bust the public employee unions and impose devastating austerity measures on the working class of Wisconsin.

In recent months police have begun arresting and ticketing people for trivial "violations", such as wearing hats or sunglasses in the Senate and Assembly galleries, holding signs, or exercising their right (protected by the Wisconsin constitution) to record legislative sessions.  These restrictions have apparently been a lead-up to the real crackdown.  Just last week, the Walker administration announced a new policy that will severely curtail the free speech rights exercised by the Solidarity Sing-along and other groups who use the Capitol building. 

The new rules require groups of four or more people to apply for a permit from the DOA at least 72 hours in advance “for all activity and displays in state buildings”.  Groups can be charged $50 per hour per police officer if law enforcement is determined to be necessary.  Payment for law enforcement could be required in advance as part of the permit process and protesters could face additional charges for liability insurance.  The rules are vague and arbitrary, and so far the administration has refused to clarify them or answer questions from citizens about how they will be enforced, leaving room for abuse by police and DOA officials.

These rules are obviously aimed at making free speech inconvenient and restrictively expensive for most people.  Free speech is a hard-won right for Americans.  Between 1907 and 1916, free speech demonstrations lead by the IWW swept the western United States.  In Spokane, the Industrial Worker published a call to all workers to defend their rights: "Wanted -- Men to Fill the Jails”.  And fill the jails they did!  As one Wobbly got dragged from the soapbox and arrested, another would take his place and the call would go out for more “footloose rebels” from all over the country to hop on a train and come join the fight.  The struggle can be seen as a victory as it eventually led to the founding of the American Civil Liberties Union.  The Wisconsin chapter of the ACLU is currently working to help defend the right of Wisconsin citizens to speak freely in the Capitol.

The Wisconsin DOA’s attempts at suppressing free speech in public buildings is strikingly similar to the rules and regulations that were the subject of the free speech fights a century ago.  In 1912, the city of San Diego argued that restrictions on free speech were necessary for "the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, and safety”.  On December 8, 2011, a representative for the DOA argued that when citizens exercise free speech, “You’ve got the potential there to have a safety issue and that’s the primary concern”.  

The Solidarity Sing-along has stated that they have no intention to apply for a permit in order to continue doing the same thing they've been doing every day for months.  The singers ask that anyone who is able please join them for the sing-along outside the Capitol at noon on Friday, December 16 (the first day the new rules will be applied) and indoors at the Capitol on Monday, December 19 to test the new rules.

Resolution:  The Madison IWW takes note that Governor Walker’s soon to be implemented restrictions on gatherings at the State Capitol are a threat to the democratic right of free speech and assembly and we urge all supporters of free speech to participate in any upcoming protests in an appropriate way.