Walker administration releases protest documents

The Wisconsin Department of Administration (DOA) has released a batch of records to Public Record Media relating to the arrests of demonstrators at the Wisconsin capitol complex.

The arrests were largely conducted in 2013, and involved a group of so-called “Solidarity Sing-a-Long” protesters who gathered at the capitol each workday at noon.  The protest group had engaged in the ongoing demonstration against Wisconsin governor Scott Walker since 2011, and had rallied without permits for the bulk of that time.

After many months of accommodating the demonstration, the Wisconsin Capitol Police changed tactics and began to issue citations and conduct arrests in the summer of 2013.  PRM submitted a Wisconsin Public Records Law request in September of 2013 to learn more about the tactics and legal rationale behind the arrests.

Request history

DOA denied PRM’s initial request, and PRM subsequently submitted a modified, narrowed request.  Ultimately, the amount of documents released was small in relation to the scope of the underlying activity, and the cache is likely not inclusive of all available records.

The record release does contain a sampling of documents related to the legal basis for  the arrests, correspondence related to the arrests, and e-mails about the use of acoustical amplification technology by Wisconsin police.  More information on the documents can be found in PRM’s recently published Minnpost opinion piece on freedom of information issues.

Document overview

Key documents in the record release include:

• A transcript of a hearing from 2011 regarding the ground rules for capitol protests in the aftermath of mass union demonstrations that filled the capitol grounds for days at a time.  Judge Albert’s eventual ruling supported efforts by Capitol Police to remove individuals who were sleeping in the complex, but also noted that the building had to be open and accessible for free speech activities.

• A DOA letter on capitol access procedures dating from March of 2011.  The letter sets out a general policy of requiring permits for demonstrations in the capitol complex, but also waives some of those requirements (including obtaining permits for demonstrations in the rotunda).

•  Correspondence between members of the Capitol Police regarding the threshold for arresting individuals, after DOA began to vigorously enforce permit requirements.

• Correspondence between Wisconsin State Representative Chris Taylor and DOA Secretary Mike Heubsch.  In his letter, Representative Taylor asks Secretary Heubsch to “de-escalate” the arrests.

• A letter from Secretary Heubsch to Representative Taylor defending the arrest tactics, citing long-standing permitting rules.

No records of decision to initiate arrests

The records do not provide an answer as to why – after many months of comparable activity – DOA began its 2013 arrest crack-down.  Capitol Police e-mails contain a brief reference to “emergency rules,” but do not specify anything further.

Correspondence between DOA and Governor Walker was requested as part of PRM’s public records request, but no such correspondence was produced.