Amidst the Crackdown at the Madison Capitol

Four more people were arrested today in the continued enforcement of administrative rules by the Capitol Police.

Whitney Steffen, Steve Gotcher and Jason Huberty were all charged with violating an administrative rule that requires all people displaying signs to first get a permit. All of them claim that the rule is unconstitutional and are willing to challenge it in court.

Valerie Walasek, a disabled veteran from Florida, was also charged with an illegal display of a sign and resisting arrest for sitting down when the police tried to handcuff her. At this writing she is currently in Dane County Jail awaiting release on a $500 bond.

This was Huberty’s second violation in as many days. He was told yesterday that he would be taken to the Dane County Jail and charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct. Although he was indeed taken to the jail, he was only given another citation and released on the recommendation of Capitol Police Officer Dave Davis.

Before his release, Huberty requested the Dane County Deputies to arrest Officer Davis for illegal detention, saying that his constitutional rights to free speech were being violated by the enforcement of the rule requiring a permit for sign holding in the Capitol.

In an interview with a local TV station, Huberty said, “I’m exercising my civic duty to express my dissent against unconstitutional rules. We are not criminals and we are not protesters. We are citizens expressing our opinions about unconstitutional rules.”

When asked if he had spoken with Capitol Police Chief David Erwin, Huberty noted that Erwin has not responded to requests by concerned citizens, some journalists and lawmakers to discuss the controversial rules. “If I could speak with Chief Erwin I would ask him to speak with the people who are at the Capitol. He talks to the press about us, but he has refused to speak with us directly. We are the people he is supposed to be protecting.”

More people came to the Capitol over the noon hour to hold signs and express their opinions about the political nature of the arrests.

Whitney Steffen, Steve Gotcher, Jason Huberty Photo Credit: Rebecca Kemble
Whitney Steffen, Steve Gotcher, Jason Huberty Photo Credit: Rebecca Kemble

Mike Dickman was told he needed a permit for the sign he was holding on the ground floor, even though other officers had confirmed that the ground floor was a “designated protest zone” where signs are allowed. He was not cited.

Mary Ann Masterton, an 87-year-old wheelchair-bound woman from Antigo, Wisconsin, came all the way down to express her outrage. Despite holding a large sign that said, “We The People,” for over an hour, she was not arrested or even warned. “Why are they not arresting me?” she said. “Do I have to throw myself over the balcony?”

Erin Silbaugh, a Marine Corps veteran who served three tours in Iraq from 2004-2008, traveled down from Marshfield to join the free speech action. Silbaugh suffers from long-term PTSD and has had difficulty getting the medical services he needs through the VA.

“Coming here helps me release my tension in a good way and I can let people know the truth about war and about how veterans are treated,” said Silbaugh. He was holding a photograph taken by his buddy during the battle of Fallujah in which he also participated. It shows the aftermath of U.S. bombing and artillery fire, with nine children lying dead and bloodied in the street.

Because of this and other wartime experiences, Silbaugh says that the normally crying of his two-year-old child triggers his PTSD and that because of that, he can’t be the father he wants to be. “I love people but I can’t stand to be around them,” he said. “There’s a demon inside me I don’t like.”

Erin Silbaugh’s story is a poignant reminder of why the Capitol needs to remain open for free speech. There are no doubt thousands of other people who have stories that could be told in a safe space to inform the public and decision makers of Wisconsin about how policies are affecting the real lives of people.

I asked him about Governor Scott Walker’s jobs for veterans initiatives and whether or not he would benefit from them. He replied, “Jobs for veterans? How can we have jobs when we’re not ok mentally? I’m 100% disabled with long-term PTSD.” He went on to decry the lack of support for disabled veterans once they’ve returned home. “They used me to go to war to make money, but once I’m out I’m on my own,” he lamented.

This morning an order on a motion for summary judgment in a case involving a challenge to the administrative rules was handed down by Judge Frank D. Remington. Judge Remington addresses the rule for which people are receiving citations with $200.50 fines.

In it he specifically addresses the part of the administrative code involving signs and says, “their signs were not "erected, attached, [or] mounted," which therefore means that their actions could only fall within the text of § Adm. 2.07(2) if their signs were "displayed." However, the word "displayed" implies something more than an individual holding a handmade sign over their head. Instead, as is generally known, the Capitol rotunda is frequently a place where freestanding artwork and such things are showcased, especially around the holiday season.

“The term ‘displayed’ implies something like a freestanding exhibit showcased in the Capitol, not an individual holding a handmade sign over their head comparing the governor to a character in a comic book. Thus, the terms of § Adm. 2.07(2) does not prohibit the Plaintiffs' conduct.”

This interpretation suggests that all of the citations handed out at the Capitol over the past two days may be thrown out in court when defendants appear on September 21.

Meanwhile, people continue to gather for the Solidarity Sing Along every day at noon. Many participants believe that Chief Erwin will begin to enforce the rule that any group of four or more people gathered in the rotunda to express their views constitutes a rally and requires a permit.

Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.