By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Civil rights attorneys pressed a federal judge Wednesday to temporarily block the state’s Capitol access policy, arguing the rules stifle free speech and don’t serve any legitimate government interest.
The policy requires Capitol Police to decide whether an event is a rally based on whether four or more people are promoting a cause, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Laurence Dupois told U.S. District Judge William Conley during a hearing. He argued that requirement amounts to a content-based regulation of speech that serves no compelling governmental purpose.
“This combination of a requirement for permit for a tiny group … is simply unnecessary,” he said.
Assistant Attorney General Maria Lazar said Capitol Police need to know the size of gatherings so they can properly allocate their limited manpower and accommodate other events taking place simultaneously.
She also argued the policy advances the government’s interest in maintaining the Capitol as a working office building where employees can labor without interruption and visitors can mill about without being intimidated.
“Everyone has a right to be there,” she said. “Just follow the rules.”
Protesters have been a fixture at the Capitol since February 2011, when tens of thousands of demonstrators converged on the building for three weeks straight to rail against Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to strip public workers of nearly all their union rights. Some camped out in the Capitol for days on end, and police racked up about $8 million in protection costs.
The Republican-controlled Legislature eventually passed Walker’s plan. But a hard-core group of protesters continues to gather in the Capitol rotunda almost daily to sing anti-Walker songs. The group consists of anywhere from 25 to 50 people.
Walker’s administration adopted a policy in December 2011 that requires organizers of any event taking place inside or outside a state building to obtain a permit. The policy defines an event as any performance, ceremony, presentation, festival, reception or rally. It defines rally as a gathering of four or more people promoting a cause.
Permits are free, but organizers are liable for damage and any additional costs police incur. The administration can demand payment in advance as a condition of granting the permit.
Administration officials maintained the policy simply codified unofficial policies that had been in place for years. The administration held off on enforcing the policy, though, after the ACLU threatened to sue. Ultimately, though, Capitol Police Chief Dave Erwin began enforcing it last fall.
The rotunda singers complained Erwin was unfairly targeting them. The ACLU filed its lawsuit in February on behalf of one of the singers, demanding Conley issue a preliminary injunction blocking the policy.
Conley spent about two hours grilling both Dupois and Lazar.
He pressured Dupois to explain at what point a gathering becomes so large it needs a permit. Dupois couldn’t offer a specific number, saying only it was in the range of about 50 people.
Conley also sparred with Lazar over her assertion the policy wasn’t created in response to the collective bargaining protests. She acknowledged she didn’t know how many permits had been issued prior to 2011 or how many people had been cited for not having a permit before that year.
The hearing was expected to last into Wednesday afternoon. It was unclear when Conley might rule.