Why the Permit Policies in the U.S. Capitol Are Irrelevant

Confusion continues over the new Department of Administration rules announced December 1 which require advance permits for many demonstrations held within the Wisconsin State Capitol. Among the more controversial aspects of the policy are its applicability to small groups of protestors and the discretion granted to the State Capitol police to require permit seekers to pay security costs in advance. I have already written about the manner in which this policy goes too far, and how it impermissibly infringes upon the First Amendment rights of protestors.

One response to the criticism of the new DOA policy has been to compare the DOA policy to the rules governing demonstrations at the United States Capitol building. At first reading, it appears that protestors are completely banned from the United States Capitol building under guidelines issued by the United States Capitol Police. Those guidelines state that “demonstration activity is prohibited and will not be permitted inside any Capitol buildings.” You can read the U.S. Capitol Police policy here.

At a recent forum to discuss the new DOA policy, one participant asked, if the U.S. Capitol Police can ban demonstrations altogether within their building, why can’t the Department of Administration impose restrictions in the State Capitol building that are something less than a complete ban?  The simple answer to this question is that the U.S. Capitol building is not considered a public forum, while the Wisconsin State Capitol is.

The expression of political speech receives the greatest protection under the First Amendment when it takes place in a public forum:

Speech restrictions in traditional public forums are generally subject to the most exacting forms of judicial scrutiny. A government entity may never restrict all forms of communicative activity in these spaces. Public forum doctrine also requires that all restrictions based upon the content of the speech must be subject to strict scrutiny; that is, they must further a compelling state interest in a narrowly tailored way. Courts strike down restrictions on speech in traditional public forums when the restrictions do not satisfy strict scrutiny. In traditional public forums a government may, however, impose content-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions as long as those restrictions are “narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and leave open ample alternative channels of communication.

Michael J. Friedman, Dazed and Confused: Explaining Judicial Determinations of Traditional Public Forum Status, 82 TUL. L. REV. 929, 933 (2008).

In contrast, a far lower form of judicial scrutiny applies to evaluate speech restrictions in nonpublic forums. In a nonpublic forum, speech restrictions need only be reasonable and viewpoint-neutral. See id. at 935.

In Gaylor v. Thompson, 939 F. Supp. 1363 (W.D. Wis. 1996), District Judge Barbara Crabb held that the Wisconsin State Capitol is a public forum. This ruling is unsurprising. The interior of the Wisconsin State Capitol building has traditionally been a site for public expression and protest. As a result, any restrictions on speech within the Wisconsin State Capitol building must meet the stricter standard described above.  As stated by Judge Crabb:

In this instance, the state of Wisconsin has opened the capitol rotunda to a variety of displays and exhibits and must be considered a public forum for the purpose of First Amendment analysis. However, that decision does not mean that the state is prohibited from imposing certain regulations on the time, place and manner of the displays. The state can implement such restrictions provided they “are justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech, that they are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and that they leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information.”

However, in the case of Bynum v. U.S. Capitol Police Bd., 93 F. Supp.2d 50 (D.D.C. 2000) the court ruled that the United States Capitol is not a public forum.  The court noted that as early as 1946 the U.S. Congress had passed a law banning protests and demonstrations inside of the U.S. Capitol. That law, coupled with a lack of a tradition of public access to the U.S. Capitol building for protests, and the exclusive control that Congress exercises over the District of Columbia, led the court to conclude that the U.S. Capitol is not a public forum:

Which brings the Court to what may seem a somewhat surprising conclusion that the inside of the United States Capitol is a nonpublic forum for First Amendment forum analysis purposes. While in many respects the Capitol must be viewed as sui generis, it appears that its designation as a nonpublic forum most closely conforms with Congress’ intent and the forum-based approach adopted by the Supreme Court. As a nonpublic forum, the government may restrict First Amendment activity in the Capitol so long as the restrictions are “viewpoint neutral” and “reasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum.” [citations omitted]

Because it found the U.S. Capitol building to be a non-public forum, the court evaluated restrictions on speech within the U.S. Capitol building under the more forgiving standard of reasonableness.

However, it is important to note that, even under this lower constitutional standard, the court still found that the only reasonable justification for government rules restricting speech would be the disruptive effect of the protestor’s conduct. Therefore, even under the nonpublic forum standard, the United States Capitol Police were still prohibited from banning expressive conduct that was non-disruptive.

In the case of plaintiff Bynum, he was a pastor who led a small group in prayer and meditation, in a conversational tone, within Statuary Hall and other portions of the Capitol Building. The Bynum court held:

The Court, however, cannot conclude that the regulation is reasonable in light of the purposes it could legitimately serve. While the regulation is justified by the need expressed in the statute to prevent disruptive conduct in the Capitol, it sweeps too broadly by inviting the Capitol Police to restrict behavior that is in no way disruptive, such as “speechmaking . . . or other expressive conduct. . . .” Because the regulation’s proscriptions are not limited to the legitimate purposes set forth in the statute, it is an unreasonable and therefore an unconstitutional restriction on speech. [citation omitted]

The Bynum court issued an injunction ordering the U.S. Capitol Police not to enforce restrictions on First Amendment conduct within the Capitol Building unless they are addressed towards disruptive or obstructive conduct.

Therefore, even under the lesser standards applicable in a nonpublic forum, the First Amendment prevents the U.S. Capitol Police from completely banning small, non-disruptive protests within the U.S. Capitol building. Any statement in the current written policy of the U.S. Capitol Police that purports to completely ban protests inside of the U.S. Capitol cannot be enforced. For example, in one highly publicized recent case, the U.S. Capitol Police apologized to an individual for mistakenly removing her from the Capitol Gallery for wearing a T-shirt with a political slogan.

[Note: Unlike the interior of the U.S. Capitol building, the grounds surrounding the building are a public forum. See Lederman v. United States, 291 F.3d 36 ( D.C. Cir. 2002).]

The bottom line is that it makes a difference for the constitutional analysis of the new DOA policy that the Wisconsin State Capitol is a public forum.

Might the legislators in Madison pass a bill declaring that the Wisconsin State Capitol is no longer a public forum? Not really, because once a location has become a public forum by tradition the government may not arbitrarily remove that status. In any event, such a law would violate the Wisconsin State Constitution, which provides that the doors of the State Capitol shall remain open while the legislature is in session. There is, of course, no analogue for this provision in the federal Constitution. Even though the Wisconsin Supreme Court has recently treated the “open doors” provision of the Wisconsin Constitution in a rather cavalier manner, it is difficult to conceive how any legislative attempt to completely foreclose protests within the State Capitol building could survive a state constitutional challenge.

It should be obvious by now that the permit policies currently in place at the United States Capitol are completely irrelevant to the First Amendment analysis that applies to a public forum like the Wisconsin State Capitol. As I previously wrote, the new DOA policy is overbroad because it allows fees to be imposed on the indigent as a condition of protesting, it vests unbounded discretion in the Capitol police to determine whether to impose advance fees for security costs, and it requires permits from small groups of four or more protesters. These restrictions fail to meet the strict standards used to evaluate limitations on speech in a public forum. Even in a nonpublic forum like the U.S. Capitol, the federal courts have enjoined attempts to prevent small groups from engaging in non-disruptive protests without a permit.

By looking to the policies in place at the U.S. Capitol, the defenders of the DOA policy have fallen into a logical trap. The advocate thinks to himself, “If only I can argue Proposition X, then I will win the argument.” So the advocate searches high and low for evidence in support of Proposition X. Alas, arguing backwards from a conclusion never works.

Here, Proposition X is the assertion that “Restrictions on speech in the United States Capitol reflect what may be constitutionally restricted in the Wisconsin State Capitol.” As the above discussion illustrates, this assertion rests upon a myriad of mistaken assumptions.

By drafting an overbroad policy with little or no guidance for how the security staff is supposed to implement it, the Department of Administration has placed the Wisconsin State Capitol Police in a very difficult position. Rather than continue in its attempts to justify restrictions that indefensibly infringe upon the First Amendment rights of citizens, the DOA should withdraw its new policy and start from scratch.


This Post Has One Comment

  1. Ted Voth Jr

    So we learn that the Constitution doesn’t really mean what it says? Swell…

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