Singing Deemed Illegal in the People’s Rotunda

Singing Deemed Illegal in the People’s Rotunda
(by Greg Gordon and NWU member Jonathan Rosenblum)

A kind of lyrical “Wisconsin UpriSING” has become the daily successor to the 100,000-strong rallies of February and March 2011. (VIDEO)...

The Walker administration in December 2011 created rules requiring that groups of four or more wishing to have an event in the rotunda must obtain a permit from Capitol police, pay for any additional required monitoring, and accept possible liability for damage, including in some cases advance insurance.

But the sing-along has no legal or group structure, so there is no one to seek a permit. Moreover, the peaceable gathering is respectfully unamplified, delivered when Capitol offices are closed for lunch, and expressive of protest about ongoing legislative issues. The singers have argued this kind of protest is protected by the First Amendment and by Wisconsin’s constitution.

A few weeks ago, a federal judge declared unconstitutional the rule that limits rotunda rallies to four people, in an ACLU lawsuit filed on behalf of a University of Wisconsin employee who couldn’t get an answer about when he could legally sing. When the judge offered advice that permits might be applicable to rallies of more than 20, the police promptly began their crackdown, on July 24.

The first day they nabbed the 80-year-old retiree with her husband, 85. News photos flashed across the nation. (VIDEO)

AFSCME Council 24 assistant director Jana Weaver, The Progressive magazine editor Matt Rothschild, a 14-year-old girl, and three members of the Raging Grannies were arrested August 14...

The very first sing-along was called by Wisconsin Peace and Justice Network coordinator and math instructor Steve Burns, who felt sure that the massive crowds who'd chanted and sung in the rotunda in winter 2011 would want a continuing outlet to protest and petition the government after the legislation was signed.

One musician “localized” the chorus of “This Land is Your Land” to Wisconsin—to feature Lake Geneva, Madeline Island, rolling prairies, and lovely dairies, in place of California and the New York islands—and this incarnation of Wobbly corner sing-alongs was off and singing.

During its two-and-a-half years, the sing-along has grown to a “gentle-angry” variation on the sit-down strike. A “sing-out strike,” once a day.

Singers are petitioning their government in a space constructed just for that purpose. Judge William Conley’s recent injunction acknowledged this special history:

“The Capitol rotunda is closer to an out-of-doors, traditional public forum…with a unique history as a place for government and public discourse, which…was designed for a certain level of disturbance that would not be proper in a typical state office building.”

A trial to determine the precise constitutional boundaries is scheduled for January 2014. In the meantime, there is no end in sight (or hearing) to the unharmonious arrests.

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