"Concealed Camera" protesters gathered atop a walkway overlooking the Capitol rotunda early Tuesday evening while the Assembly remained in partisan caucuses.
The longtime editor of The Progressive magazine was arrested in the Wisconsin Assembly gallery for taking photos of the arrest of another citizen who had been taking photos of proceedings on the Assembly floor.
"We ought to have a right to take a picture," Matt Rothschild told the conservation warden escorting him Tuesday night for ticketing.
(To view an extensive slide show of events in the Assembly gallery Tuesday night, click the "Gallery" tab at right below the photo.)
Wearing a sign taped to his shirt that spelled out the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and provisions in the state Constitution ensuring the right to free speech and assembly, Rothschild went to the Capitol prepared to be arrested. Like many of the others who filled nearly every seat in the Assembly gallery, Rothschild said he was fed up with the arrests in recent weeks of citizens who defied the Assembly ban on displaying signs, and shooting photos and video.
"I have just had enough personally and I can't take it anymore," Rothschild said Tuesday afternoon.
A contributor to the liberal blog Daily Kos helped draw protesters to the Capitol Tuesday by calling for a "Concealed Camera Day" protest. Comedian Stephen Colbert had great fun on his show Monday night, noting that Wisconsin residents, under the concealed carry law that kicked in Tuesday, will now be able to carry concealed weapons in the Capitol but are not allowed to shoot video of legislative proceedings.
Among the bills on the agenda Tuesday night was one to institute the "castle doctrine," which would make homeowners immune from criminal or civil liability if they killed someone in self-defense in their home, vehicle or workplace. Also on the docket was legislation that would change the state's fall primary date from September to August.
When the Assembly was called to order a little after 6 p.m., protesters sat in the upstairs gallery with signs clearly attached to their shirts. Some held cutouts of pistols and cameras. One held a small American flag.
As they filed in, an Assembly page handed out "Rules of the Gallery." They include: "No Laptops," "No Movie/Video/TV Cameras," "No Photography," "No Cell Phone or Pagers," "No Public Displays or Demonstrations," and "No Signs or Placards," among others. In boldface read a warning: "Violators will be asked to leave."
(Watch a video clip of the protesters entering the gallery.)
About five police officers stood at the back of the room at the time. Soon people starting holding up their cell phones to shoot video. Assembly pages first asked these individuals to put away their phones but, when they were rebuffed, police officers moved in to make arrests.
In all, 18 arrests were made for "other conduct prohibited" and "obstructing," said Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs.
While the arrests were being made, some protesters yelled at the police. Others simply asked them why they were making arrests. "You could refuse to do this," one protester said to an officer.
Spaulding says the citizens who have been fighting the Assembly ban on cameras and signs have been marginalized as the "usual suspects." But, he adds, "they really are here fighting for our liberties and I'm here to support them."
He says it's unconstitutional to prevent observers from using cameras to take photos and videos, or smart phones to do the same plus publish on Twitter from the gallery. "We're not dangerous people. I love my state and I don't want to see it going in the direction it's going in."
Joseph Skulan was also arrested and taken away in handcuffs. This is his third arrest for videotaping in the Assembly chambers.
Skulan says citizens have the right to petition their government. But he also has a practical reason for wanting to record legislative action. "I want to be able to keep tabs on what particular legislators are doing," he said.
Sue Trace didn't get arrested although she, too, was wearing a sign. "I'm here to support our First Amendment rights," she said. Trace, who has belonged to public and private sector unions, says she was not politically active until Gov. Scott Walker introduced his bill curtailing the collective bargaining rights of public employees. Now, she says, she knows the names of all her legislators and how a bill becomes a law.
"I just believe in unions because unions created the middle class," she said.
Callen Harty, a former artistic director of Broom Street Theater, got arrested after declining to stop videotaping when asked. He says he felt it was time to join the fight: "As I was sitting there I just knew I couldn't just let the same group of committed young activists continue to be the only ones standing up for our constitutional rights."