By Scott Bauer
Madison — Gov. Scott Walker’s administration on Friday revised its policy covering gatherings at the state Capitol, making clear that families and lobbyists in groups of four or more would not have to get a permit when in the building and stressing that noncompliance would not automatically lead to arrests.
The policy, which was unveiled earlier this month, is being phased in and is scheduled to take full effect Monday.
Other revisions clarify that demonstrators would not be subject to paying for damages caused by counter-demonstrators and most events would not require additional police protection requiring the billing of permit holders.
Those providing their own security will not be billed unless additional police are requested.
“It’s meant to be very reasonable,” said Jocelyn Webster, spokeswoman for the Department of Administration. “The changes evolved from some of the confusion that is surrounding this policy.”
Walker’s administration officials have said they anticipate a lawsuit challenging the policy.
Stacy Harbaugh, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, said she still has concerns over the policy despite the changes, which the ACLU’s legal team had yet to review.
Webster said the administration is working with singers who gather at the Capitol each day to sing anti-Walker songs in order to ensure they are in compliance. Even if they don’t get a permit, however, Webster said they will not be arrested.
“There’s a fundamental misunderstanding of this policy if there was a belief arrests were going to stem from this policy,” Webster said.
The changes made Friday come after three public listening sessions in which Capitol police and members of Walker’s administration were bombarded with questions from people who viewed the policy as an attempt to quash their free speech rights.
Webster said the administration stands by the policy as constitutional and merely a formalization of past practices and procedures.
The policy requires any group of four or more staging an event in the Capitol get a permit and that groups of 100 or more outside the building get a permit.
New language was added making clear that sexual orientation could not be used as a basis to discriminate against anyone seeking a permit. State Rep. Mark Pocan, who is gay, complained the original policy did not include that specific prohibition, and Walker’s administration reported it was simply copying language from the previous policy that had been in place for years.
“I’m glad they’re not continuing to push a very wrongheaded idea,” Pocan said.
Even so, Pocan opposes the policy.
“We haven’t had a problem under Democratic or Republican governors for as long as my memory can go back,” said Pocan, a 13-year veteran of the Assembly. “It’s only this administration that’s trying to change decades old policy and are surprised when people react badly.”
Permits had always been required for rallies at the Capitol, but administration officials said more clarity was needed in the wake of massive demonstrations earlier this year that erupted in opposition to Walker’s proposal effectively ending collective bargaining rights for public workers.