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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.


Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.