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Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011

The End of Free Speech in Wisconsin

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On July 9, 1964, a week after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, Judge James Hare in Selma, Ala., issued a brazenly unconstitutional injunction forbidding three or more citizens from gathering to discuss civil rights or voter registration.

That was eight months before “Bloody Sunday,” when state troopers and sheriff's deputies did violence not just to the law, but also to human beings, by using tear gas, billy clubs and horses to beat and trample 500 civil rights protesters, including children, attempting to cross Edmund Pettus Bridge.

I bring up that illegal injunction in the “Race and Public Policy” class I teach at UW-Milwaukee as an example of what can happen when legal power falls into the hands of those who have no qualms about breaking the law or violating the Constitution.

This isn't something that only happened in the racist South in the bad, old days nearly half a century ago. It happened last week in Madison, Wis.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker announced a new policy requiring all groups of four or more people to apply for a permit 72 hours in advance before engaging in any activity expressing their opinions in the state Capitol.

Outside the Capitol, groups of 100 or more would have to apply for such permits 72 hours in advance. That should certainly nip in the bud all those enormous demonstrations by tens of thousands of people protesting Walker's destructive policies—especially since Walker says he's also going to start charging citizens who want to publicly criticize his administration.

Walker's new policy will require demonstrators to pay $50 an hour for each Capitol police officer assigned to protect the governor from the hurtful words of those crowds.

Wow. Figuring a 40-hour week and 52 weeks in a year, that comes to $104,000 a year. Who says Walker wants to slash public employees' pay?

In addition to requiring people who don't like him to pay for their own policing, Walker also intends to charge enormous amounts of money for imaginary cleanup costs.

“Enormous” and “imaginary” aren't exaggerations. We all remember earlier this year when protesters filled the Capitol day after day to protest Republicans scrapping 50 years of collective bargaining rights for public employees and gutting public education. The Walker administration came up with truly unbelievable damages of $7.5 million as a result of protest signs being taped to the walls with easily removable painters' tape. Only deafening peals of laughter from voters throughout the state forced Walker's people to lower that absurd estimate.

Imagine: charging protesters $7.5 million for damage plus another $8 million (the administration's estimate of policing costs for those previous demonstrations).

If Walker can charge citizens more than $15 million if they want to complain about his policies, only millionaires will be able to organize public demonstrations against the governor.

The beauty of that, of course, is that millionaires may be the only people in Wisconsin who are perfectly happy with everything Walker has done. Walker's passed out hundreds of millions of dollars to corporate millionaires while cutting funding for everybody else in the state.

Even though Walker has identified elementary-school teachers as today's new filthy rich robber barons, they're going to have to drain all their Scrooge McDuck swimming pools full of money to publicly complain about this governor.

Tea Party in Awkward Spot

It's too bad all of those bothersome public demonstrators are trying to exercise their First Amendment right of freedom of speech and assembly to petition their government. If they wanted to exercise their Second Amendment right to carry a gun into the Capitol to blow everybody away, it would only cost them $50 for a permit.

Speaking of the Tea Party, their hero Scott Walker has put them in a really awkward position.

Before tens of thousands of schoolteachers, parents of disabled children and poor people who can't afford health care started showing up at the Capitol, the whole place was overrun with Tea Party demonstrators waving racist posters of President Barack Obama dressed up as an African witchdoctor and other ugly political sentiments.

Now the governor's new policy against free speech and assembly is forcing many of his strongest supporters to demonstrate how blatantly dishonest and hypocritical they really are.

The Tea Party loves to wrap its hate speech and extreme political views in respectable language about constitutional rights and opposition to infringements upon individual freedom by Big Government.

But it would be difficult to imagine a more brazen violation of freedom in America than allowing an elected politician to restrict gatherings of four or more people at the Capitol and to charge citizens for protesting government policies they oppose.

Unless they are complete frauds, members of the Tea Party should stand alongside every decent citizen in opposing Walker's unconstitutional restrictions on free speech and assembly in Wisconsin.

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