Protecting citizen voices in our electoral process and in political protest is part of our proud Wisconsin tradition and integral to our democracy. Yet these traditions are threatened by the deluge of corporate cash influencing our elections and the crackdown on political speech in our state Capitol.
Unlimited campaign spending by corporations and billionaires, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and related cases, is drowning out citizen voices in elections. In the 2012 presidential election, 32 donors gave an average of $9.9 million each to super PACs, matching the small donations from 3.7 million people in the presidential election. According to a Sunlight Foundation report, 78 percent of spending by outside groups in the 2012 election would have been prohibited prior to the Citizens United ruling, which for the first time in our country’s history equated unlimited corporate campaign contributions with constitutionally protected political speech exercised by actual people.
Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, and I, joined by 32 Wisconsin organizations, recently introduced a citizen’s advisory referendum soliciting Wisconsin voters’ opinions on whether unlimited corporate spending on political campaigns should be allowed. Sixteen red and blue states have already passed advisory referendums calling for a constitutional amendment to undo Citizens United. Fourteen local governments in Wisconsin, including typically conservative communities such as West Allis, have passed either ballot referendums or resolutions opposing Citizens United.
Exercising political speech shouldn’t be related to the size of your wallet or the content of your speech. Shortly after we introduced our Citizens United resolution, the Capitol Police began arresting noontime singers in the Capitol rotunda. For over two years, the daily singalong has generated various levels of participation, dwindling to just a handful of individuals peacefully exercising their free speech rights. But last fall the Walker administration and newly hired Capitol Police Chief David Erwin started squashing continued signs of political dissent by making arrests and issuing dozens of citations — most of which have been dismissed — for carrying signs, holding banners or singing.
As recently discussed by a federal judge when he enjoined the Walker administration’s permit scheme requiring every individual and small group engaging in expressive activity in the Capitol rotunda to obtain a permit, the rotunda is the epitome of a traditional public forum. Any limitation on a person’s free speech right in such a place has to be related to a substantial state interest. The Walker administration has thus far failed to convincingly articulate how their permit scheme is related to a substantial state interest and continues to incorrectly assert that it has the right to arrest peaceful protesters when 21 or more people are gathered in the rotunda.
The administration’s needless escalation of this situation, including calling in state troopers and DNR wardens, has actually increased the turnout at the singalongs and the likelihood of conflict. That’s why Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, and I recently urged the Walker administration to engage in a dialogue for a peaceful resolution of the situation.
I’ll believe that corporations are people when they can be arrested by the Capitol Police for singing in the rotunda. In the meantime, we all need to weigh in on the importance of protecting true speech rights for our citizens and each person’s ability to engage in political dissent. Our democracy depends on it.
Chris Taylor, D-Madison, is a member of the state Assembly.