Shall Never Be Abridged

On Sunday, the Wisconsin State Journal featured an article by Nico Savidge with the headline “Tighter rules for Capitol protests not unlike many other states’.” On seeing this headline, my first reaction naturally was “Oh, well then, that makes it okay.” Not. The headline in Monday’s Pierce County Herald (Ellsworth, Wisconsin) read “Protesters at the State Capitol have it great compared to other statehouses.” Be sure to tell that to my buddy Will.

Will Gruber being arrested for disorderly conduct on Monday,
September 24, 2012, as he was leaving the Solidarity Sing Along
at the Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Leslie Amsterdam.

Tighter rules on protests inside the Wisconsin State Capitol have angered demonstrators and raised civil liberties concerns. But the state is in good company when it comes to regulating speech—especially loud or highly visible speech—in the seat of state government.

Good company?!?! You’re kidding, right? That would be like hearing from your doctor that, like you, half the people on your block have cancer, so, since you’re in such good company, no worries! Or, like you, half the people at your workplace are losing their jobs, so at least you’re not alone, right?

I have no idea where the “especially loud or highly visible speech” comes in, as this nicety is not addressed elsewhere in the article.

Wisconsin Department of Administration spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said the results of the [State Journal] survey show that Wisconsin’s requirements are reasonable and “much more generous” than those in other states.

This is kind of like saying that since the restrictions in your cell block are so much looser than those in the one next door, you should quit complaining. Notice also that Marquis was commenting on the State Journal’s survey before it was published. It’s enough to make one wonder where DOA public relations ends and the Wisconsin State Journal begins.

And this nugget of wisdom from Ms. Marquis: “The permitting process is there to make sure that everyone has a voice, and that everyone can use the Capitol.” Thank you so much for caring that everyone has a voice and that everyone can use the Capitol. However, it’s not “the permitting process” that does that, Ms. Marquis. The U.S. Constitution and the Wisconsin state constitution—they do that.

Soon after Erwin took over as chief, however, he said he would enforce the permit requirement. Erwin has lived up to that promise, with Capitol police issuing 23 citations for violations of Capitol rules regarding signs and permits in just one week earlier this month.

Au contraire, Chief Erwin has not lived up to that promise. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but the majority of the citations issued have not mentioned the lack of a permit. For the most part, they have to do with “obstruction,” although obstruction of what is not altogether clear. More to the point, the Capitol’s singing citizens continue singing, every weekday at noon. So far, the Solidarity Sing Along has obtained not a single permit. And since Erwin’s crackdown, our numbers have expanded as concerns about infringement of the right to free speech have grown.

Chief Erwin has said, “There is a time and place for free speech, and we reserve the right to regulate that a little bit. We just have to keep it civil and people don’t need to be threatened.”

No, your job, Chief Erwin, is not to regulate our free speech, not even “a little bit.” You see, as soon as you do that, it isn’t free anymore. Your job is to protect our right to free speech. And if anyone is doing a piss-poor job of “keeping it civil and making sure people don’t feel threatened,” it’s the Capitol Police, not the singing citizens in the Rotunda.

As of this writing there have been 467 consecutive weekday Solidarity Sing Alongs at the State Capitol. Whenever other groups have wanted to use the Rotunda, the Sing Along has graciously taken itself outside, even in the most inclement weather, rather than restrict or interfere with others’ access. But to hear Erwin and Marquis, you’d think it was the singing citizens who are making things difficult at the Capitol.

A little reminder for Nico Savidge, the State Journal, Chief Erwin, and Ms. Marquis:

Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is generally understood as a guarantee of the right to free speech for every U.S. citizen. To “abridge” here means to diminish, to curtail, to reduce in extent. There is no caveat that says it’s okay to “regulate that a little bit.” Because of the First Amendment, the right to free speech in this country is unassailable, undiminishable, unabridgable. It is sacrosanct. Without it, we are merely cogs in the great corporate machine that is consuming us all. This is not about a minor inconvenience. This is about something absolutely fundamental to what it means to be a U.S. citizen. It’s worth fighting for, and some brave and great souls have said—and demonstrated—that it’s worth dying for.

Jason Louise Huberty, who has received several citations thus far, holds a banner in the State Capitol on Friday, September 21, 2012. Lisa Wells, his partner, who has also received multiple citations, stands next to him with a sign that says “2nd Floor, 1st Amendment.” The banner hangs just above a bust of progressive hero Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette. Standing next to it is Dawn Henke, the disabled veteran who collapsed as the Capitol Police attempted to arrest her on September 14, 2012. Photo by Jenna Pope.

Moreover, Wisconsin isn’t just another state, and the Wisconsin State Capitol isn’t just another statehouse. Our state has a celebrated history of being a bastion of progressivism, a beacon in the dark night of assaults on civil rights. Our state constitution reaffirms and strengthens the rights guaranteed in the U.S. Bill of Rights.

The right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged. (Article 4, Section 1, emphasis added!)

Furthermore, the National Register of Historic Places has this to say about the Wisconsin State Capitol:

Whereas some statehouses are maintained apart from the urban fabric, the Wisconsin Capitol Rotunda functions, both literally and symbolically, as a city center and is fully utilized as a public space to which all have claim.

Just because civil rights, and specifically free speech, are eroding all over the country does not mean that we should be content for them to erode here in Wisconsin. Those who acted to attach the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and those who framed the Wisconsin State Constitution well understood that free speech is absolutely essential and fundamental to a free people.

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