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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 69.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Are Wisconsin Assembly Republicans stifling free speech at the Capitol?
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Jason Huberty accuses Capitol police of enforcing 'illegal' rules.
Credit:Arthur Kohl-Riggs

On Oct. 20, three people were ticketed for disorderly conduct and removed from the Capitol's Assembly gallery after refusing to conceal their protest signs, sparking allegations that Assembly Republicans are cracking down on citizens who oppose their agenda.

"They're making up the rules as they go," says protester Jason Huberty, who was among those arrested. "But those rules have to follow the laws of Wisconsin and can't violate our fundamental freedoms."

Protesters say that the ban on signs -- at least those that are pinned to clothing -- is not only arbitrary, but also arbitrarily enforced. Huberty notes that earlier this year signs were permitted if pinned to one's clothing.

Anne Tonnon Byers, the Assembly's sergeant-at-arms, says protesters have it wrong. She says there has never been a time when signs were allowed in the gallery. "We've been consistent with this," she says. "The rules haven't changed. We've never said they're okay."

The Senate and Assembly set their own gallery rules. Those ticketed on Oct. 20 had previously brought their signs into the Senate gallery without incident. But after they moved to the Assembly gallery, upwards of 10 Capitol police assembled to tell spectators to remove their signs or face arrest. (See video.)

Five people were arrested inside the Capitol for similar offenses earlier in the week.

"Nobody was talking or making a disturbance," says protester Paul Schmid. "The only disturbance was when the [police] officers told us to remove the signs."

Schmid had a Bible verse hanging from a lanyard around his neck and was ticketed after refusing to remove it. Huberty accuses Capitol police of enforcing "illegal" rules.

"We're considering taking civil action so the courts can make a ruling to clarify this," he says.

Three Democratic lawmakers were visibly upset by the arrests and assailed Republicans over their heavy-handed enforcement of the rule.

"Do we need 10 officers at taxpayer expense up there to deal with people who are quietly sitting there with something in their lap or pinned to their T-shirts?" asked Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison).

Several Republicans nodded "yes," to which Berceau responded, "I'm sorry... that you live in such fear.... They have a right to express themselves, they're doing it quietly, and 99% of us in this room don't even know they're doing it."

Attorney Jim Mueller, also among those ticketed last week, says the Assembly's Republican leadership is acting on its strong distaste of contrary opinions.

"This is something everyone should be concerned about," he says. "The gallery is a free speech area. Even if there are rules against signs, they're unconstitutional. It is our right to peaceably assemble and petition the government."

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