By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Gov. Scott Walker’s administration’s crackdown on a handful of state Capitol protesters violates their constitutional right to free speech, American Civil Liberties Union attorneys alleged in a lawsuit filed Monday.
The lawsuit asks a federal judge to block Capitol Police from arresting or citing protesters who gather in the building’s rotunda without a permit, starting with a preliminary injunction.
“The state Capitol rotunda is a unique public forum that by tradition and designation has been open to the public for expressive activity,” the lawsuit said.
The dispute stems from the 2011 labor protests at the Capitol. Tens of thousands of people converged on the building to protest Walker’s plan to strip most public workers of nearly all their union rights. The demonstrations went on around the clock for weeks, but the Republican-controlled Legislature pushed Walker’s proposal through anyway.
A group of protesters has been gathering in the rotunda almost daily since the demonstrations ended, singing and chanting against Walker during the lunch hour in what’s become known as the Solidarity Sing-Along. Anywhere from 25 to 50 people show up.
Capitol Police, which Walker’s administration controls, initially took a hands-off approach. Last summer, though, the department’s new chief announced a crackdown on the singers. Officers in September started issuing scores of citations to group leaders, mostly for violating requirements that groups of four or more people who gather in the building to perform or attend a rally obtain a permit.
The lawsuit argues Capitol Police must determine if protesters’ activity promotes a cause and thus qualifies as a rally. That means enforcement is content-based and violates the U.S. Constitution’s free speech guarantee, the lawsuit claims.
The ACLU’s attorneys also argue requiring a permit for a group as small as four doesn’t advance any legitimate government interest in public safety or in regulating space for competing groups.
Department of Administration spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis issued a statement early Monday evening saying agency attorneys had just received a copy of the lawsuit and needed to review it. But she said the permitting process has been in place at the Capitol for more than 30 years and is legal.
“All groups must follow the permitting process,” she said, “and the Capitol Police issue hundreds of permits each year regardless of political party, affiliation or content.”