Chris Dols is not happy with how things are turning out. For years his group, the UW-based International Socialist Organization, sold its Socialist Worker newspaper on State Street and elsewhere. Now he feels it's being unfairly made to "jump through hoops" and pay large amounts to continue exercising what should be First Amendment rights.
As Isthmus reported ("Madison Cracks Down on Socialists," 9/10/09), the Madison Police Department has since 2008 been issuing citations to the paper's vendors, sometimes for vending without a license and sometimes for setting up a literature table without a permit.
Recently the city agreed to dismiss its citation against Dols - but only if he goes another six months without a violation. Another ISO member, Dan Ratliffe, lost his fight against a lit-table citation in Municipal Court.
But last month the city issued Ratliffe a street-use permit to allow a table, on Saturdays only in the 400 block of State Street, for a one-year period. The cost: $150.
And last week, a resolution was introduced to the Madison Common Council to let the group obtain a street-use permit to sell papers. If the council agrees (the matter won't be decided until June 15), the socialists will have to pay $300 for this privilege.
"The city's ordinances permit licensed vendors to sell anything from hand-rolled burritos to hand-blown glass pipes, yet they prohibit people from [selling] political newspapers and books [without paying for a permit]," says Andrea Farrell, a local attorney representing Dols and other ISO members. "So ISO must now try to obtain an exemption from these ordinances."
Meantime, the group is not selling its paper on State Street, for fear of fresh fines. Farrell, who's appealing the Municipal Court ruling against Ratliffe to circuit court on First Amendment grounds, thinks that's a shame:
"It is disappointing that in an era where the Supreme Court is upholding the First Amendment rights of corporations, the city of Madison is making it exceedingly difficult and cost-restrictive for young people and university students to engage in political expression and the sale of political literature on the public sidewalks of State Street."
So how, in a city that lays down the law against newspaper-selling socialists, can the Overture Center get away with affixing rubber lion footprints on sidewalks to help lead patrons of The Lion King to its door?
Madison General Ordinance 26.06 allows writing in chalk on city sidewalks and streets (which didn't stop police from citing an activist for doing so). But the prints seem to fall into the class of markings that are not allowed.
As with most such matters that don't involve activists, enforcement is likely complaint-driven. And who would complain about a thing like this?