Judge Says Capitol Free Speech Restrictions “Create Extraordinary Chilling Effect”

Rules that Groups of Up to 20 May Gather without Permit


CONTACT: Sarah Karon, ACLU of Wisconsin, (608) 469-5540; skaron@aclu-wi.org

MADISON, Wis. – A federal judge yesterday granted a preliminary injunction in the ACLU of Wisconsin's Capitol free speech case, allowing groups of up to 20 people to gather without a permit inside the Capitol.

“This is huge victory for free speech,” said Larry Dupuis, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin. “The court recognized the Capitol’s unique and historic role as a forum for free speech and public gatherings.”

The ACLU of Wisconsin filed the federal lawsuit in February, aiming to block the state from requiring permits for demonstrations held inside the Capitol and from punishing protesters who gather there without a permit.

Under the new permitting policy, groups as small as four were forced to obtain prior permission from the government before they engaged in expression “for the purpose of actively promoting any cause.” The new rules also prohibited people from gathering in the Capitol for any performance, ceremony, presentation, meeting or rally without a permit. 

Michael Kissick, an assistant professor in the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, sometimes participated in demonstrations inside the Rotunda, including the Solidarity Sing Along group.

Kissick ceased exercising his First Amendment rights in the Capitol in September 2012, when Capitol police began arresting and citing people who exercised free speech inside the Capitol without a permit.

The ACLU of Wisconsin’s Dupuis and Madison attorney A. Steven Porter are representing Kissick in court.

"I’m grateful to the ACLU and the federal courts for protecting our constitutional right to assemble and speak,” Kissick said. “Our country began with protest, and I feel certain that Sam Adams would approve of this ruling.”

In his 47-page decision [see PDF below], which includes photos and details about the Capitol’s history and architecture, Judge William Conley wrote that the Capitol’s “design was intended to embody… the pursuit of fair and open government informed by an educated, politically involved citizenry and the ‘Wisconsin idea.’”

“The current permitting requirement sweeps in an enormous amount of ordinary activities that are unlikely to present any significant disturbance in the Capitol,” Judge Conley wrote. “The extraordinary chilling effect of permits explains why courts are careful to require that (permits do not) burden small gatherings posing no threat to the safety, order, and accessibility.”

A trial for a permanent injunction is scheduled for the week of January 13, 2014.

The ACLU of Wisconsin is a non-profit, non-partisan, private organization whose 7,000 members support its efforts to defend the civil rights and liberties of all Wisconsin residents. For more on the ACLU of Wisconsin, visit our website, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter at @ACLUofWisconsin and @ACLUMadison

Tuesday, July 9, 2013