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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Overcast
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New round of Wisconsin Capitol protests target sign and location rules
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Protesters took to the first level of the Capitol Rotunda on Tuesday to express political speech in an area where it has been prohibited by the state Dept. of Administration.
Credit:Joe Tarr

Last Sunday, Dane County Supv. Melissa Sargent and her two sons, 13-year-old Devin and 11-year-old Bailey, decided to drop by the Capitol. They'd been regulars at the protests over the past month, but in the last week had been unable to come as often.

A Sunday afternoon seemed like a nice time to make a return appearance.

The Sargent boys brought a sign that read "Solidarity Forever" which they hung over the Rotunda balcony, as they and thousands of other protesters have done in recent weeks.

But starting last week, such an offense is punishable with a $205.50 fine. Capitol Police asked Sargent to tell her sons to remove the sign. "I said 'I'm not willing to do that, but you can talk to them about it.'" Her sons also declined, and so police issued Melissa Sargent a ticket. (Watch videos here, here, here, and here.)

"I question whether the Department of Administration and the governor can trump the U.S. Constitution," Sargent says.

The Sargents aren't the only ones who have been ticketed. In the past week, protester Jeremy Ryan of Defending Wisconsin PAC has been given several tickets for holding signs on the first level of the Capitol (signs are permitted on the ground floor).

Undaunted by the first ticket, Ryan continues to push for what he sees as his right. (Watch videos here, here, here, here., here, and here .) "Most of these tickets have been given out right near the constitution in the Capitol," he notes. "We usually get a ticket within about an hour or two."

So far he has four tickets -- totally $822 -- all of which he plans on fighting in court, starting on April 8. In general, police have been friendly, Ryan says, though in one case an officer grabbed his camera and tried to take it away.

They confiscate his signs, "for evidence," he says. But Ryan and his colleagues don't always get tickets -- they held a sign for six hours on Monday, without being fined.

Another man was arrested on Monday, though, in the hallway in front of the Governor's office. (Watch video here.)

A Department of Administration spokesperson did not immediately respond for comment about the policy and its enforcement.

"It is kind of a showdown between ourselves and Mike Huebsch," Ryan says, referring to the DOA secretary. "It's unconstitutional and we're taking a stand for our rights."

But if the goal of the DOA in ticketing people has been to further discourage protests, on Tuesday it had the opposite affect.

Hundreds of protesters came out to show support -- the biggest rally inside in perhaps a week. Many of them held signs and wore white T-shirts, themselves protest signs, that read on the back, "Rise Up," and "Freedom of Speech" on the front.

The T-shirts were the brainchild of Nina Bednarski and her husband who saw online video of the Sargents being ticketed.

The couple have a T-shirt press at their Lake Mills home and spent $160 on T-shirts and $25 on ink making them. They gave them out for free, though many people gave a donation in return.

Bednarski says she was disgusted when she learned of the ticketing. "Any DOA rules don't hold any weight with me. Two weeks ago this was a cathedral of the people."

She notes the inconsistency in enforcement -- police made no attempt to quash the Tuesday noon rally. "What kind of laws are those? One day you enforce them, the next day you don't? That's not how laws work."

As of 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Capitol Police had yet to enforce the sign ban.

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