The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, charging that a recent state Department of Administration policy violates the First Amendment.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Madison, aims to block the agency from requiring permits for demonstrations held in the State Capitol and from punishing protesters who gather in the Capitol Rotunda without a permit.
The ACLU also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the permit rules by DOA Secretary Mike Huebsch and Capitol Police Chief David Erwin.
Michael Kissick, an assistant professor in the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, participated in demonstrations in the Rotunda until September 2012, when Capitol police began arresting and citing people who participated in expressive activities without a permit. Kissick has since refrained from exercising his First Amendment rights in the Capitol for fear of being ticketed or arrested.
“I have always attempted to follow the law while expressing my political views,” Kissick said. “I resent being treated as criminal for speaking freely in a public forum. This country was founded on dissent, so I view myself as a proud American exercising my rights to engage in the most protected of all speech."
DOA adopted the permit rules in November 2011, following widespread demonstrations in and around the Capitol earlier that year. Under the new policy, groups as small as four must obtain prior permission from the government before they engage in expression “for the purpose of actively promoting any cause.”
The new rules also prohibit people from gathering in the Capitol for any performance, ceremony, presentation, meeting or rally without a permit.
The permit policy creates a chilling effect on free speech in the Rotunda, a public space with unique symbolic significance. Surrounded by legislators’ offices, the governor’s office and the state Supreme Court chambers, the Rotunda historically has been devoted to public debate of issues important to the people of Wisconsin.
“The State’s overbroad permitting scheme burdens core political speech, which should receive the highest degree of First Amendment protection,” said Larry Dupuis, Legal Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “It is preventing citizens from engaging in expressive activity and sharing their views where their leaders exercise power.”
The ACLU lawsuit argues that the protests in the Capitol, including the well-known Solidarity Singalong group, which has never held a permit, have been largely peaceful and non-disruptive, rendering the DOA scheme unnecessary.
In addition to Dupuis, Kissick is represented by Madison attorney Steve Porter.