New crackdown on Capitol protests may be imminent
Another state-backed crackdown on the persistent Capitol protesters is likely to begin after April 1.
According to a “statement of scope for administrative rules and emergency rules,” obtained by The Capital Times Monday, the state is planning to promulgate emergency rules — a fast-tracked method to pass a new law quickly without public input — to once again define what sorts of permitted activities are allowed in the Capitol.
The statement of scope document was approved by Gov. Scott Walker Friday.
On Monday, Stephanie Marquis, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Administration, confirmed in an email that the department had submitted the scope statement to the Legislative Reference Bureau for drafting purposes and the new emergency rules would be issued sometime after April 1.
“It is not anticipated that the rule changes will have any new impact upon any person or group that follows the permit process,” Marquis said in the email.
She added that the intent of the new rules is to codify the current policy as well as update the rules in conformance with recent court rulings.
The scope document says the changes are needed because of the protests that began in 2011 in response to Walker’s ultimately successful effort to turn back collective bargaining rights for public employees.
“Beginning in February 2011, groups of persons began to occupy the Wisconsin State Capitol building without permits,” the document reads. “This included appropriating rooms and hallways in the Capitol building for purposes such as camping and storage of bulk supplies.”
It goes on to read: “Groups of persons continue to occupy rooms in the Wisconsin State Capitol building without permits, including the Capitol rotunda. These groups constitute an exception to the norm … It is imperative that the department continue to gain greater compliance from user groups in order to protect public safety and welfare.”
The statement of scope says among the objectives of the new rules is to codify the permit process, define such terms as “event” and “exhibit,” and clarify that “even common materials can pose a hazard when used or deployed in a hazardous manner.”
The document also discusses the possibility of closing the Capitol as a public forum, mirroring policies at the U.S. Capitol and several state capitol buildings, but adds that the measure “is not recommended.”
Because the rule changes are being proposed as an emergency rule, they do not need legislative approval, which means no public hearing will be held on the changes before they become law.
“One thing that should be abundantly clear, even to the most casual observer, is this is an administration that is utterly contemptuous of the public,” says Bob Jambois, who is representing several of the protesters who have been cited. “They don’t care what the public has to say.”
One of the prime targets of an attempted crackdown that began last summer has been the Solidarity Singers, who have conducted noon-time singalongs in the Capitol rotunda every Monday through Thursday for the last two years to skewer Walker and other Republican leaders in song.
The citations are the result of a change in command that occurred July 23 when David Erwin became the Capitol Police chief and instituted a much tougher approach to the protesters.
“It has been a colossal failure,” says Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison. “They should have left the rules alone, but instead they have brought in a police chief that wants to hit a fly with a baseball bat.”
Taylor has been one of the most critical voices against the ongoing efforts of the Walker administration to curtail free speech at the Capitol.
There have been a few disruptions blamed on a handful of Capitol protesters. The Solidarity Singers, a group made up mostly of current or retired public workers, have conducted their singalongs largely without incident. Erwin has demanded that the singers obtain a permit, but the group has refused.
The Department of Administration, however, says in the statement that the singers have disrupted a number of permitted events, “including, but not limited to, a Red Cross blood drive, a high school science exhibit, school group tours, general public tours, and legislative committee meetings and sessions.”
But Jambois says the singalong has taken place without incident for two years, so adopting an emergency rule at this point makes no sense.
According to state law, “an agency may promulgate a rule as an emergency rule without complying with the notice, hearing and publication requirements ... if preservation of the public peace, health, safety or welfare necessitates putting the rule into effect prior to the time it would take effect if the agency complied with the procedures.”
“What is the emergency that needs to be addressed for people coming to sing a song or people coming to hold up a sign,” asks Taylor. “This is really just a way to side-step the (rule-making) process and put rules in place that will further limit activity at the Capitol.”
Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.