Ed Kuharski is a regular at the Solidarity Sing Along, the weekly noontime singing protest that Capitol Police have been cracking down on over the past two weeks, giving $200.50 tickets to dozens of participants for not having a permit.
But he was happy to learn a group of conservatives, led by former Isthmus blogger David Blaska, had obtained a permit to sing at noon Monday, the Solidarity singers' usual time slot.
"The antidote to free speech you don't like is more free speech. Bring it on," says Kuharski. "We're not trying to own the forum -- they just don't show up and then act like we've bullied everyone out."
About 50 people -- calling themselves "David Blaska and the We Got a Permit Singers" -- set up their sing-along on the first level of the Rotunda, one floor above where the Solidarity Sing Along usually gathers. The Solidarity singers, numbering a few hundred, moved outside on the Capitol lawn near State Street and held their usual session. They were bolstered by a horn section, a couple of guitars and a fiddle.
The Blaska group sang from a songbook that included patriotic songs and parodies of television theme songs. A revised version of Woody Guthrie's classic "This Land Is Your Land" contained this verse:
This land is my land, it is not your land
I got a shotgun, and you ain't got none.
If you don't get out, I'll let my dogs out
This land is private proper-TEE!
Bart Munger, a longtime Solidarity Sing Along participant who listened to the Blaska group for a while, held a sign with the state constitution's relevant sections regarding free speech and assembly in support of conservative groups' right to be there. A policeman "told me I couldn't hold my sign up so I complied," Munger says.
The Solidarity Sing Along has been going on every weekday since March 11, 2011. There have been previous attempts by police to end the event by ticketing people. Courts threw out most of the earlier tickets. (Blaska organized a previous competing sing along on June 27, 2011.)
The latest crackdown comes in the wake of a July 8 ruling by U.S. District Judge William Conley, who found the Capitol Police's rule requiring a permit for any gathering of four or more people is unconstitutional. Conley ruled that the police could not require a permit for groups that number fewer than 20. The police are now attempting to enforce that rule. Their efforts so far have only reinvigorated the singers' resolve, bringing out bigger crowds.
"It's an old-fashioned standoff," says Jackson Foote, who was ticketed during last Thursday's sing-along. "The question is whether people will keep coming to the Capitol and whether people will keep arresting them."
Foote has no doubt some singers will continue to push the point. "There's a small group of committed people who are willing to get ticket after ticket after ticket to support the right to free speech and assembly. Long after the crowds go away, they'll still be coming."