Chris Rickert: Same old Capitol songs a First Amendment, police procedure primer

2013-08-13T10:45:00Z Chris Rickert: Same old Capitol songs a First Amendment, police procedure primerCHRIS RICKERT | Wisconsin State Journal | | 608-252-6198

Leave for vacation to the strains of the Solidarity Singers getting cuffed and ticketed mid-verse, come home to find out another 90 or so tickets were issued while I was away.

I don’t know why I thought the Capitol’s most recent made-for-YouTube drama would achieve anything like reasonable denouement in a week’s time. The Singers still point to the constitution to say they don’t need a permit; the police still point to a 34-year-old-law and a recent court decision to say they do.

So, seeing as how this is a conflict the combatants aim to keep alive, why not turn it into a teaching moment on the First Amendment and police discretion?

We could use it.

A survey this year by the Washington, D.C.- and Nashville, Tenn.-based First Amendment Center found that 36 percent of Americans could not name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment (ergo, I repeat them here: freedoms of speech, religion and the press; rights to assembly and petition).

The best-known First Amendment rights were speech (which 59 percent of Americans could identify) and religion (with 24 percent name recognition).

I’m not aware of any surveys that gauge Americans’ understanding of well-established legal limits on, say, blasting Iron Maiden out of your bedroom window at 3 a.m. in the name of free speech, or leading public school students in praying the Rosary in the name of religious freedom.

But given that plenty seem convinced by the Singers’ the-constitution-is-my-permit canard, a refresher course on those is probably in order, too.

Gov. Scott Walker’s administration and other law-and-order types might also be surprised to learn that police have plenty of discretion in what laws to enforce.

Outside of knowing cops will often let us off with warnings for minor traffic offenses, “I sense that most people are only dimly aware of just how much discretion police exercise, and over what range of matters,” said Michael Scott, a UW-Madison clinical professor of law. Scott is also a former police officer.

He called the “wise exercise of discretion by the police ... arguably the glue that keeps our democracy strong.”

Besides, when your local police force is spending a good chunk of time pulling over speeders or cracking down on nonviolent, generally cooperative protest singers, it’s hard not to wonder if there might be more pressing crimes they could be attending to.

Scott said he will probably reference the Solidarity Singers in his fall course, “The Role of the Police in a Free Society,” “both for thinking about police discretion and for thinking about the police function with regard to protecting citizens’ First Amendment rights.”

Madison Public Schools spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson said student field trips to the Capitol are common for elementary and middle school students, and must be related to curriculum, such as a social studies unit on government.

No doubt the Singers and the Capitol Police are both a bit off-key, but at the least their songs are a good starting point for delving into the rights, responsibilities and restraints necessary to any healthy democracy.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(11) Comments

  1. Duane12
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    Duane12 - August 14, 2013 10:56 am
    Thank you, Chris, but I take my moral and lawful guidelines, from the first words of an old favorite song:

    "My country tis of thee
    sweet land of liberty,
    of thee I sing.

    Ergo, the Solidarity Singers are in tune contrary to your opinion. The Capitol Police at the explicit orders from a tone-deaf governor are the ones off key and out of step..

    Sing, Solidarity Singers, sing on..
  2. aspire
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    aspire - August 14, 2013 9:43 am
    Bluff, let's be clear here, our governor helped passed act 10 that clearly benefits all of the people of Wi. . And drawing rediculous comparisons shows how far you'll grasp.
  3. RutledgeStBlues
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    RutledgeStBlues - August 13, 2013 1:17 pm
    "Separation of Church and State" has nothing to do with the separation of religion and state. This very much abused part of the 1st amendment known as the "establishment clause" means that the United States would not have a state church (like they do in say the UK or Denmark). Religion however is a completely different matter. Teachers are perfectly within their constitutional rights to express religious belief, but as Good Dog said, most just don't want to come near such a controversial issue.
  4. marlori
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    marlori - August 13, 2013 12:50 pm
    not sure how your comment applies-- teachers may be protesting (as well as others) but they are not bringing students in with them to the Capitol. So no teacher led activity going on here.
    1st amendment rights and responsibilities as a teacher are two different areas-- while it may be a right to pray, it is not a right to lead students in prayer. And in fact it is a responsibility as a teacher in a public school to NOT promote personal religious beliefs. That is not giving up constitutional rights, that is just part of the position. Remember, separation of church and state!
  5. human
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    human - August 13, 2013 12:33 pm
    It should also be noted that when the police arrest the protesters, they handcuff them behind their backs, and take them to the basement, where they are given citations that are on the same level, legally, as a traffic ticket.

    If the cops started routinely handcuffing drivers when they stopped them for speeding, every paper in the state -- even Chris Rickert and the MacIver Institute -- would be up in arms with indignation about "police overreach." But if the police are handcuffing singers, shouldn't they be handcuffing speeders, too?

    Next time Glenn Grothmann gets a speeding ticket (he gets them fairly regularly), I like to see him by the side of the road, with his hands cuffed behind his back.Fair's fair, after all.
  6. Stan
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    Stan - August 13, 2013 11:31 am
    VRL - perhaps you ought to do a little research before you have another "thought." The Capitol Police are being supported by uniformed Wisconsin State Patrol officers. We have people doing 75, 80, 85 miles an hour on I-90 and it seems there is a fatal wreck on the interstate nearly every day. Wouldn't those officers do more for our state patrolling our highways instead of strong-arming 80 year old protesters?
    Report Abuse
    GOOD DOG HAPPY MAN - August 13, 2013 10:05 am


    I get the feeling that you think it would be wrong for teachers to lead students in prayer at a public school. You're probably right.

    However, would it be constitutional for them to be instructed and then led by their teacher to gather on common ground, say around the flagpole and have a student-led prayer?

    They'd certainly learn about the !st Amendment and tolerance for Free Speech Rights!

    So, do you think that a public school teacher should be allowed to lead a group of students to the Capitol in order to participate in a Solidarity Sing-Sing/protest?

    In either case, it would probably be seen as teacher sanctioned, but the teacher would be wise not to participate even if he/she shared those particular beliefs.

    Does one give up THEIR constitutional rights as condition of employment in the public sector? Isn't that creating a hostile working environment?

    Good Dog, Happy Man.
  8. VRL
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    VRL - August 13, 2013 9:41 am
    Aren't the Capitol Police issuing the citations to the Solidarity Singers? Not sure that they would be out enforcing speed limits. But enforcing laws pertaining to the Capitol building might be what they are paid to do. Just a thought. :)
  9. Joe Blow
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    Joe Blow - August 13, 2013 8:57 am
    You were gone?
  10. aspire
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    aspire - August 13, 2013 8:43 am
    Mellow, seeing this as favoring either side tells a lot about you.
  11. Mr Mellow
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    Mr Mellow - August 13, 2013 8:24 am
    Chris, the info about the public's general lack of knowledge of their rights was interesting, and profoundly sad. Much easier to take away rights most people don't know they have.

    I would have been more impressed if you had presented anything factual to back up your snide "canard" comment about the Singers, or that your fanciful Walker, etc., might be "surprised" at how much enforcement discretion they have. You do know your thumb is visible on the scale, right? Perhaps you're still not quite back from vacation?

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