By Callen Harty
Tonight I sat in the Assembly gallery and was incredibly saddened by what I saw.
The current Assembly session is part of the second week of the Governor’s “special jobs session”. There was not a single bill last week, and none on the agenda for this week or next, that has related to the creation of jobs in Wisconsin. The Democrats tried introducing one this evening about wind power that would have created hundreds if not thousands of jobs, but it was not allowed. Instead there were bills defining a bicycle, allowing the drinking of wine at county fairs, allowing certain retail establishments to sell alcohol later, and other equally important items, including some to make the corporate benefactors happy.
While these inane bills were being discussed the State Patrol and Capitol Police were again busy arresting ordinary citizens for standing up for their First Amendment rights in the Assembly gallery. The absurdity of these arrests is beyond the pale. Yet they keep happening. Members of the public are removed from the gallery, put into handcuffs, and charged, usually with disturbing the peace. And for what? Were they screaming at the idiocy of the Representatives who do not represent anyone but moneyed interests? No. Were they throwing tomatoes at the Assemblypersons who clearly do not care about their constituents? One could wish, but no. What horrible thing could they possibly be doing to be taken out of the gallery and arrested? In short, they violated Assembly rules.
Assembly rules are simply rules of decorum for behavior in the gallery. Pages passed out miniature versions of those rules to everyone who entered. For the record, these are the gallery rules, which start with a note, “For reasons of safety and decorum please observe the Assembly rules.”
No bags or briefcases.
No standing (except for prayer or pledge).
No movie/video/tv cameras.
No cell phone or pagers.
No eating or drinking.
No public displays or demonstrations.
No signs or placards.
No hats (except U. S. military)
At the bottom of the page it states, “Violators will be asked to leave.”
While there were no arrests for newspapers, eating, or drinking, at least seven to ten individuals were arrested tonight for videotaping the proceedings of the Assembly, and there have been several consecutive days of this while the Assembly has been in session.
There are several issues that make these arrests wrong, besides wasting taxpayer money on more than a dozen police officers to enforce these rules.
First, the rules, which are prominently displayed on the way into the gallery and as mentioned passed out to individuals by the pages, specifically state that violators will be asked to leave, not arrested. None of the ones I witnessed being arrested were asked to leave the gallery. They were asked multiple times to stop taping, but were never asked to leave the gallery because they refused to stop taping. They were not just escorted out of the gallery. They were arrested and charged for videotaping in violation of rules of decorum.
Second, Wisconsin state law (sec 19.90) provides that citizens who desire to photograph or videotape a public meeting are allowed to do so. Not only are citizens allowed to do so but the law specifies that the governing body that is meeting needs to do everything in their power to accomodate the citizens’ desire to record the meeting. So the Assembly rules are not legitimate. I am not a lawyer, but certainly state law must supercede a governmental body’s wishes to prevent the videotaping. Otherwise any governmental body could simply say recording is not allowed and the open meetings law is tossed out with the garbage. The state law provides for the recording of government meetings, pure and simple. By law the only time that a body can prevent this is if the videotaping interferes with the conduct of a meeting or the rights of the participants. None of these people videotaping tonight were interfering with the conduct of the meeting in any manner and certainly were not interfering with the rights of the Legislators. During these repeated arrests the conduct of the meetings has only been interfered with when the State Patrol officers have moved in and started dragging people out, drawing attention from the Assembly floor.
Finally, there was a federal ruling in a case in Massachusetts at the end of August (Glik vs. the City of Boston) in which the federal First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a man (Glik) who had videotaped police officers performing their duties and was arrested for it. But the court did not limit their decision to police officers. They said, “Gathering information about government officials in a form that can readily be disseminated to others serves a cardinal First Amendment interest in protecting and promoting ‘the free discussion of governmental affairs.'” In addition, they added, “a citizen’s right to film government officials, including law enforcement officers, in the discharge of their duties in a public place is a basic, vital, and well-established liberty safeguarded by the First Amendment.” They did not limit this interpretation to police officers–they included police officers. Certainly the Wisconsin Assembly cannot create rules that supercede a federal court ruling.
After those videotaping were arrested and cited, the officers started moving in on those with signs. The citizen protesters in the gallery see pinning signs to their shirts or holding them in their hands as political speech, which is protected again by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Only one arrest was made before the Assembly took a break and went into caucus. I left before they started again, but I don’t have to look it up to know that there were more arrests once they came back into session.
There is particular absurdity with the sign issue. On previous days there have been arrests of those holding 5 x 7 index cards with quotes from the Constitution. It is not as if those on the Assembly floor can even see these, if they actually cared enough to want to see them. But a citizen holding one faces potential arrest. On the other hand those with political buttons are allowed in with no questions asked. The same words on a tee shirt allow one to sit and watch the proceedings. Put those words on a small handwritten sign and there is the possibility of arrest. One woman was recently arrested for an 8 x 10 sign pinned to the front of her shirt, but another was allowed to stay with a very similar sign barely sewn onto her shirt (meaning just at the top corners).
Clearly it is not about the signs or even the content of the signs. It is about power. It is about the police force (literally) showing those who oppose the Republican leadership that their opposition will not be tolerated. It is about the Republican leadership of the Assembly deciding that they want no input from citizens. Are they that afraid of the people who elected them, that they can’t face what those people might have to say? Are they so ashamed that they can’t look up at a sign quoting the Constitution of either Wisconsin or the United States? How could this be anethema to them, these men and women who were elected by Wisconsin citizens and who took an oath to uphold the Constitution? Tonight I heard someone at the door of the gallery being told that they had to leave a sign outside the door. It was another sign that quoted the Constitution. The person holding it asked the page if they did not see the irony of not allowing a quote from the Constitution into the Assembly gallery, and there was no answer. That more or less summed it up. There can be no answer to that because there is no logical reason for a rule that would prevent a citizen from holding the Constitution in the gallery–even when it is being held to shame those who clearly have no regard for it.
After nine or ten arrests someone turned this sign upside-down during a break in the Assembly’s session. (Tu, 10/25)