Chris Dols almost got away with it. On May 28, he and several others were selling the Socialist Worker newspaper in the 400 block of State Street. Madison Police Officer Chanda Dolsen informed them that this was not allowed. Dols says they agreed to leave, and she agreed not to write any tickets.
But, being a socialist and young besides, Dols couldn't resist making a smart-ass remark: "I asked her if she feels comfortable doing her job, even if it's giving tickets to people engaged in constitutionally protected activity."
At this, he says, Dolsen asked for his ID and wrote him a $298 citation for vending without a license. (An email to Dolsen relating this account drew a reply from MPD Capt. Mary Schauf, who declined comment "until the case is adjudicated.")
Dols, 26, is a member of the campus-based International Socialist Organization, which has been selling the Socialist Worker in Madison for decades, to raise money and awareness. The papers are offered for $1 each at political events and to passersby in well-traveled places, especially State Street.
But since April 2008, Madison police have issued four citations to ISO members engaged in selling the Socialist Worker on State Street, according to Andrea Farrell, a local attorney who is representing the members.
The first, to Noah Callagan, alleged a violation of the city ordinance 10.25(1) against placing "articles on the sidewalk." It was dismissed after the city failed to respond to a challenge brought by Farrell on behalf of the Jeff Scott Olson Law Firm.
Last December, Callagan was cited again, under the same ordinance. For tactical reasons, it was not challenged and Callagan had to pay a $172 penalty.
Ticket number three was issued March 21 to ISO member Ben Ratliffe. It was initially for selling alcohol, an apparent error, but later changed to 10.25(1). Farrell last month filed a 25-page brief in Municipal Court on her motion seeking dismissal.
The brief (PDF) argues that the ordinance was meant to regulate storefronts and business owners. It says citing Ratliffe requires "an absurd reading of the ordinance," like citing a street musician who sets out a hat or a shopper who sets down a package. And it says the city is on especially thin ice in going after people exercising First Amendment rights. (The city could end up having to pay damages.)
The city's response brief is not due until Sept. 11. But Assistant City Attorney Lara Mainella says the above citations were not for selling papers but "for setting up a table on a public sidewalk without a permit." And while Dols was cited for lacking a seller's permit, Mainella says the "big picture issue" is still the presence of a table.
"None of the cases," she says, "are about the newspapers or the speech." (Mike Moran, vending coordinator for Street Pulse, which also sells papers on State Street, says none of his vendors have been ticketed.)
Farrell, who is contesting Dols' citation (a conference is set for next week), counters that obtaining a seller's permit entails significant costs. When Dols tried doing so, he was told he would need to procure a million dollars' worth of insurance. And Farrell says this license seems not to cover selling papers.
"If the city is going to require a permit and then not issue a permit to political speakers," says Farrell, "it's really saying you can't speak on State Street."
Dols sees a larger pattern, which includes demonizing the homeless, redoing Peace Park and regulating street musicians.
"It seems like there are political forces interested in changing the character of State Street," he says. It's an effort he feels is sure to backfire, given the election of Barack Obama and ongoing activism.
"The city's decision to create more barriers to speech comes just as thousands of Madison students feel politically relevant for the first time," Dols says. "The timing is terrible. The city should have tried this with Bush in office, when we were still used to losing."
Madison resident Richard Wilson, in a letter to the editor in Saturday's State Journal, seemed pretty sure of himself, as letters writers are wont. He flatly declared that the city of Madison's new program to provide dropoff sites for plastic bag recycling was "beyond stupidity" because the $32,000 cost "won't come close to equaling what will be spent to operate the program, and the environmental benefits will be minuscule."
George Dreckmann, the city of Madison's recycling conquistador, concedes that the bag program will likely "not pay for itself" either through money from revenues from bags or savings in landfill tipping fees. But he argues that the environmental gains make the program worthwhile.
Earmarking bags as recyclable, he hopes, will cut down on litter, both from improperly discarded bags and bags that blow from landfills and such ("blowage"). And he thinks it will encourage people to recycle and reuse bags. (The city, working from national estimates, says Madison residents use nearly 75 million plastic bags per year.)
Beyond that, Dreckmann says providing sites for bags is cheaper than banning them altogether, since communities that have done so have been sued by plastics manufacturers. And he argues that the program "puts the lie" to accusations that Madison is anti-business, as it doesn't shift full responsibility to the businesses that use them.
More casualties at Cap News
On Aug. 15, Mike Miller reached a milestone: Forty years of fulltime employment at The Capital Times.
"I am the oldest in both age and tenure in our newsroom except [editor emeritus] Dave Zweifel," says Miller, 64.
Make that was the oldest.
Miller is among a dozen Madison Capital Newspaper employees who've accepted the latest round of buyouts. Ten are from the Wisconsin State Journal. They include features writers Tom Alesia and Sandy Kallio, sports writers Jason Wilde (see here) and Eric Anderson, and editorial writer Chuck Martin. And Cap Times staffer Jane Burns is being moved to the State Journal. (Years ago, when the papers maintained the illusion of separation, it was considered bad form to hire from each other's ranks.)
Cap News originally asked for 15 people to fall on their swords, accepting severance packages, but sources say the 12 departures and other reshuffling will stem the need for bloodletting - at least for now.
For longtime readers, Miller's loss may be the most painful. He was a great courts reporter, knowledgeable and fair, and a gifted writer of historical pieces, including a project on his paper's history.
Suffice it to say, it's seen better days.
A Bucky Book for barflies
Greg Melzer has a dream, that taverns in Madison will be able to reward their customers while giving them a new reason to come.
"Right now the bar business, because of the down economy and the smoking ban, is hurting something fierce," says Melzer, whose wife, Kim, owns This Drink's On Us, LLC. Within the next two weeks the company plans to begin offering MadCityCocktails, a pocket-size book that sells for $10 and offers two-for-one drink specials up to $7 in value at more than 100 bars (see What about the concern, likely to arise, that this passport will encourage alcohol consumption and bar-hopping? "There's no reason they couldn't do that anyway," notes Melzer. "Right now, you can get 50-cent taps at some bars. "If you're looking for a cheap drunk, there's better ways than buy one, get one free.'" We'll drink to that.
What about the concern, likely to arise, that this passport will encourage alcohol consumption and bar-hopping?
"There's no reason they couldn't do that anyway," notes Melzer. "Right now, you can get 50-cent taps at some bars.
"If you're looking for a cheap drunk, there's better ways than buy one, get one free.'"
We'll drink to that.