Since he enacted his trademark anti-collective bargaining law in 2011, Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) has been subject to incessant protest from labor advocates. Nearly every single weekday for the last two and a half years, dozens of activists have flooded the state Capitol building, often singing loudly in order to demonstrate unity and protest, to gain public sympathies and to portray Walker and his administration as freedom suppressors.
These protests have consumed the Capitol, and state officials claim that the activists intimidate other Wisconsin citizens and inhibit them from using the space. A spokeswomen for the Statehouse police, Stephanie Marquis, insists it is important that "Capitol police [uphold] the law to ensure the building can be shared by all citizens who come to the Capitol."
There has, however, been much controversy incited over the protesters’ rights to be in the Capitol while loudly singing, and the state’s ability to dismiss citizens who are too disruptive. This controversy has included both court cases and arrests, as well as provoked more distrust of Governor Walker from the state’s unions.
The first court opinion on the matter was written by U.S. District Judge William Conley. The judge decided that neither Governor Walker nor any Capitol officials may constitutionally require activists seeking to protest in the rotunda to obtain a permit, as long as the party is not larger than 20 people. Indeed an immediate victory for Walker’s adversaries, a demonstration on Wednesday that boasted 60 protesters quickly overwhelmed the allotted margin, resulting in the arrest of 22 citizens.
These arrests, although validated by Judge Conley’s decision, have further stirred outrage amongst protesters. One complained in indignation that “Our 1st Amendment is my permit.” Another joked: "What am I being arrested for? I know I have a bad singing voice."
The protesters indeed deserve their First Amendment right to its fullest extent, but that does not mean that they can actively disrupt the business of the Capitol. When activists protest President Obama, they do so outside of the White House for obvious safety reasons. Likewise, when activists protest Congress, they do so outside of Capitol Hill, for equally obvious safety reasons. If the Wisconsin Capitol police determine that such measures need to be taken, then they have every right to take such measures — especially because a court has already set a standard for maximum protester occupancy.
Governor Walker is in a difficult situation with these protesters; he obviously should not and cannot attempt to suppress them, and I don't think that is his actual intention, but he also needs to enforce and maintain the law. The Walker administration has repeatedly offered a permit to protesters to enter the rotunda in a group of more than 20, and encourages them to have their usual singalong, if they'd like one, but this offer has yet to be accepted.
As is the case with many protests, the images and videos of activists being arrested are far more powerful and likely more inflammatory in the public eye than would be a quiet, permit-sanctioned occupation. The protesters do not want a permit; they just want to be seen and heard.