Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker likes to claim he is “unintimidated.” That’s the title of the upcoming book he plans to use to jump-start his presidential campaign.
There is no question that Walker knows something about intimidation. But it is comic to suggest that he is the one who had been pressured. Walker has, from the beginning of his governorship, sought to intimidate Wisconsinites who seek to exercise their rights.
But now he has been forced to back down.
Though he resisted every step of the way, the governor has finally been forced to respect his oath of office.
In January 2011, Walker swore to uphold the constitutions of the state of Wisconsin and the United States. Those constitutions guarantee the right of citizens to dissent — and to do so in the public settings where they can best speak truth to power.
The U.S. Constitution was amended at the behest of its essential author, James Madison, to include specific protections of the right to assemble and to petition the government for the redress of grievances.
The Wisconsin Constitution goes further still, declaring: "The right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged.”
These are core concepts for Wisconsinites, and for all Americans.
Yet Walker did not just abandon his commitment to the constitutions of his state and nation; he assaulted the basic underpinnings of those documents with the full force of his administration. From the early days of his governorship, Walker has sought to prevent dissenters from assembling and petitioning for the redress of grievances — aggressively moving at one turn after another to abridge the right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government.
Walker and his partisan allies in the state Assembly and Senate disregarded legislative traditions, rules and open meetings laws in order to advance their signature legislation — an anti-labor law known as Act 10. And when thousands, tens of thousands and finally hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites rose up in defense of the rule of law and the rights of working people, Walker and his aides sought repeatedly to limit access to the state Capitol.
Even as the mass protests gave way to grass-roots political activism across the state, a spirited group of citizens continued to participate in a Solidarity Sing Along at the Capitol. Though they were peaceful and good-natured, and though they willingly ceded their noon-time space in the Capitol rotunda to other groups when asked, Walker and his aides rewrote rules and bent Wisconsin traditions to try to exclude them. Yet the singers held their ground. And so Walker’s administration initiated mass arrests.
Veterans were arrested.
Retirees were arrested.
Teachers were arrested.
Firefighters and other public employees were arrested.
Journalists were arrested.
Elected officials were arrested.
Hundreds of arrests were made in a concerted effort to intimidate dissent. But the people were not intimidated. They returned to the Capitol, day after day. They embraced and exercised their constitutional rights. They defended them in court.
And they prevailed.
Last week, in response to a federal lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and attorney A. Steven Porter on behalf of Michael Kissick, an assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, the Walker administration abandoned the most draconian of its assaults on First Amendment protections.
This was a clear victory for the rule of law. Indeed, it was so sweeping that the Walker administration had to pay $88,271 in attorney fees to get itself out of the constitutional corner.
Under the settlement, the state must create a notice system, which allows groups to gather inside the Capitol without going through a process that required Wisconsinites seeking to exercise their rights to obtain a permit under restrictive and punishing rules established by the Walker administration.
“There isn’t any question that the old permitting system was unconstitutional,” said ACLU of Wisconsin legal director Larry Dupuis. “This settlement halts the state’s unwarranted punishment of individuals who gather inside the Capitol to exercise their free speech rights.”
Walker tried to intimidate Wisconsinites. But they did not back down.
Ironically, it was Walker who had to back down. This is as it should be. Politicians, be they Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, should be intimidated by the demands of our state and national constitutions.
That is particularly true of powerful executives like Scott Walker who imagine that they should be allowed to govern unintimidated by the rule the law.
So is it too late to change the title of that book?
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