The Problem with Permits

Solidarity Sing Along members raising fists and marching around the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda while singing "Solidarity Forever".  Photo by Callen Harty.

Solidarity Sing Along members raising fists and marching around the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda while singing “Solidarity Forever”. Photo by Callen Harty.

In the last week close to a hundred citizens have been arrested for singing in the Wisconsin Capitol building. Each one has been charged for gathering without a permit, which comes with a $200.50 fine. The singers are gentle, angry people who have been protesting the Scott Walker regime in Wisconsin for going on two and a half years. In that time they have repeatedly been threatened with arrest, harassed, arrested, and charged in a failed attempt by Scott Walker’s lackeys to get the protest to end. Every time the administration has cracked down on the singers more supporters have come to stand (and sing) with them. The administration has changed its own rules several times to try to intimidate the singers, but they won’t answer straight questions about what the rules are. Virtually every arrest has been thrown out by the courts or not pursued by the District Attorney’s office or the office of the Wisconsin Attorney General. Recently a judge ruled part of the Department of Administration’s rules unconstitutional, so instead of letting it go and letting the protest slow down and die down on its own (which probably won’t happen until Walker is gone) they interpreted a narrow part of the temporary ruling to act as if they could limit the number of singers. The reality is that it’s not just about the singers–it’s about quashing all dissent, and that’s a scary proposition.

The mantra from the Department of Administration has been this: All they have to do is apply for a permit. Everyone else does. Why do they think they’re exempt and above applying for a permit? What they don’t say, and what I haven’t been hearing anyone else say, is this–the vast majority of those applying for permits at the Capitol are for Christmas displays, musical performances, Red Cross blood drives, and the like. The permits applied for are generally not for permission to express political speech. That is a constitutionally guaranteed right, both in the U. S. and Wisconsin Constitutions. It is also why the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda was designed the way it was, as a place for political expression of the state’s citizens, and that expression is for those on either the left or the right, in the minority or the majority. The exception of permits for political reasons has been for extremely large group gatherings of hundreds or thousands of people, where police protection and amplification are needed, such as the annual Tea Party tax day rallies or the union-sponsored rallies against Walker’s Act 10 two years ago. If you look at the administrative rules as they were written just over two years ago it is obvious that the permitting system was put into place for events such as weddings, performances, and other non-political gatherings. The other exception has been David Blaska, a right-wing blogger who loves Scott Walker and hates to see citizens calling his leader to task. Blaska has applied for permits on two occasions to bring other sycophants along with him to sing at the same time that the Solidarity Sing Along normally meets in order to show just how gosh-darn-easy it is to apply for and get one of the permits.

The ease of getting a permit is not the point. When the Constitution was written there was nothing in it about applying for permits in order to exercise freedom of speech. The U. S. Constitution simply says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or 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.” Article 1, section 4 of the Wisconsin Constitution says pretty much the same thing in slightly different words. The Solidarity Sing Along members are exercising their right of free speech, peaceable assembly, and petitioning the government for redress of grievances. The Solidarity Sing Along is trying to hold on to some remnants of the first amendment while state and federal governments create permit requirements, free speech zones, and other impediments to keep leaders from actually hearing anything the people (as in “of the people, by the people, for the people”) have to say. In the meantime police departments arrest citizens who happen to cross a line, videotape police or government abuse, speak (the truth) too loudly, try to contact their representatives, or seem suspicious in some way. Quite often these kinds of arrests lead to dismissed charges, but in the meantime the opposition has been silenced and the moment is lost.

There are those who would argue that most states do not allow protesters to sing, speak, or engage in other demonstrations in their Capitol buildings without permits, and neither is it allowed at the U. S. Capitol, and that is true. My issue with the argument is first and foremost that it doesn’t matter what other states do–this is Wisconsin. We have led the nation in many things and we need to be a leader again. We don’t need to demand permits because other states do. Perhaps they should get rid of their permitting processes because of looking to Wisconsin’s history of open government. Granted, that’s unfortunately a thing of the past, but we can hope it will return again soon.

Also, the Wisconsin Capitol was specifically designed to encourage citizens to engage their government. In its application for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, the committee referred to “the public spaces, such as the rotunda . . . ” The application went on to say, “More than any other space in the building, the Rotunda expresses the intended symbolism of the structure. With the Rotunda’s verticality culminating at the Edwin Blashfield painting, ‘The Resources of Wisconsin,’ the space was intended to be morally uplifting and inspirational in a manner that references the dome’s ecclesiastical origins. Traditionally a symbol of religious expression, late nineteenth century American architects transformed the dome and its interior into one of civic celebration. The soaring rotunda of the Wisconsin State Capitol is designed to induce its citizenry to be, as individuals, among the ‘resources of Wisconsin.’ 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.” The building really is our state’s town hall and the rotunda our town square. Perhaps the designers didn’t expect the thousands upon thousands of citizens filling the entire building the way they did just over two years ago, but they probably also didn’t expect a governor who could be so divisive, and they probably did imagine groups as large as the Solidarity Sing Along coming there to decry the latest government shenanigans.

A couple other issues are important to the discussion. First, the Solidarity Sing Along typically meets during the noon hour, which is not considered to be business hours in the building. They are not there singing during working hours, although there may be people working. In addition others have pointed out that the permit application also makes the applicant financially responsible should anything happen to damage the building, and possibly for police coverage, which makes it a little scary to consider, particularly if you are not rich enough to be able to cover it if something did happen. It discourages full participation in the exchange of ideas at the Capitol based on income as poorer people cannot afford to take the chance that someone who shows up for their gathering might do something that could cost them.

Another critical point is this: Those who come to the Capitol now to sing or otherwise speak for their point-of-view fully support those with opposite viewpoints utilizing the space to make their voices heard also. The thing is, those on the opposite side politically are happy with the current administration, so they don’t really have a need to come–at this time. When the day comes that they are back in the minority the building will still be open to them to come and express their viewpoints because of the stand being made now. Freedom of speech isn’t freedom of speech if it is only open for those in power. It is those out of power whose right of free speech must be protected the most. The Solidarity Sing Along members are not just anti-Walker. They are pro-Wisconsin, pro-Constitution, and pro-citizens. They are there to fight against what is happening now and to maintain our rights and freedom in the future.

Note: Most of those receiving citations for $200.50 each are choosing to fight them in court as a matter of free speech. Many of them cannot afford lawyers or even the fee required to fight the case. To assist them with the mounting costs of fighting this battle follow this link: http://solidaritysingalong.org/

Note: The quotes about the Capitol rotunda are from the application for the Wisconsin Capitol to be included on the National Register of Historic Places. It can be viewed here: http://www.nps.gov/nhl/designations/samples/wi/wisconsn.pdf

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About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Both are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he has been an actor, writer, and director since 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events.
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One Response to The Problem with Permits

  1. Siva says:

    kinda of interesting how america is slowly becoming like singapore…. looks like obama has been taking lessons from lky…

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