Monday, March 28, 2011

Madison's No Free Speech Zone

On Sunday, March 27th, the Sargent family went to the Capitol Building in Madison to show their support for the working people of Wisconsin.  The two oldest boys had painted a homemade sign which read "Solidarity Forever" and wanted to display it to show their support.

However, an unfortunate chain of events occurred in what otherwise a routine exercise of free speech as shown in two videos. The first one shows two Capitol Police officers speaking to the boys:

After the minute the officer gave the boys to think about their course of action, the police came back and confiscated the sign:

The police then led the family to the station and gave the boys' mother a citation worth $205.50 for having the banner out.

As I mentioned, the family's last name is Sargent. The father is Justin, who is an aide for Senator Chris Larson. The mother is Melissa, who is a small business owner and a Dane County Supervisor. They have four sons, ages 13, 11, 5 and 1.

One or the other of these videos have been going around the Internet already.  I've also seen a third one that includes the trip to the police station.  The comments, as one might suspect, have been running the gamut.  Many are supportive of the family, especially the boys, praising them for their courage.  Others are more snarky, accusing the parents of using their children as pawns.

I will admit I had torn feelings regarding this.  On one hand, it warmed my old heart to know that the youth of this state were recognizing that their futures were in peril and wanted to stand up for themselves.  On the other, I questioned whether the children were there on their own and if not, if the parents had put them up to it.

I've heard similar stories on Twitter, Facebook and the blogs to know that people were getting citations for peacefully exercising their free speech rights. I was also aware that there are many who contend that Scott Walker and his Department of Administration were violating not only a court order regarding access to the Capitol and how they may demonstrate, but even the state and federal Constitutions.

Given these events, I made effort to get in contact with the Sargents. After some emails, I was fortunate enough to speak with Melissa Sargent on the phone.

She told me that her two oldest boys, the ones holding the signs, are studying social sciences in school.  She also said that the boys have been to the Capitol several times in the past six weeks to watch as these historical events unfold. Having seen these events, the boys made their own sign and wanted to go to show their support.  She said that they went to allow the boys this opportunity, as well as to make sure they understood how to do it peacefully and respectfully.

Melissa shared that her business had been hit by taggers who had spray painted "Recall Walker" on the side of her building, and knows how expensive it is to have it cleaned up before getting cited for it, and wanted to make sure her sons knew the right way from the wrong way of protesting.

Melissa told me that she felt that her sons were targeted only because their sign was of a larger size and because they were hanging it over the side of the railing.  She noted that many people were walking around all parts of the Capitol Building with smaller signs and weren't even spoken to by the police, much less cited for anything.

As we discussed how the events unfolded, she shared that the police officer that was speaking during the video was the exemplary of professionalism and has no hard feelings for him.  She added that she has a lot of respect for the officers and recognizes that they are between a rock and a hard place during these times.  She said that she understands that none of this is their fault.  She said that they were simply following orders and doing what they had to do to keep their jobs.  She added that she was also aware that the Department of Administration was to blame and that they were the ones violating the court order and the Constitution.

Melissa credited the police for their professionalism and their understanding of people's feelings for being one of the main contributing factors that these six weeks of protests have been so peaceful and why there has been so few arrests.

Melissa did add that she felt the other officer in the video (the one who took the sign from the boys) was less than professional.  She said he made a condescending remark, accusing her and her husband of "using their kids."  She said that she had to ask him to not speak to her anymore because he was so rude.

I asked her pointedly if she was using her children to make a point. She said that she was not.  She pointed out that her children were following some amazing people throughout American history who stood up to exercise their rights.  Then she said something that I thought summed it up nicely:
"Even though they're not old enough to vote, they still have their voices and they have the right to use their voices in positive ways."
I am fully aware that people on both sides of the aisle will be unfortunately using her boys for their own political purposes.  There will be some on the left that will put the image up there and say how evil Walker and his minions are for wanting to give the boys tickets.  There will be some on the right that will disparage the Sargents for "exploiting" their children.

I think both sides are wrong for doing that.

I also think that this shouldn't even be about the boys in the sense that they are children. Instead, it should be about the boys in the sense that they were the ones caught on tape of yet just another example of how Scott Walker and his administration is willing to go to any extreme they fell necessary to suppress the rights of the people and to further his ideological agenda.

Whether it is trying to strip workers of their rights, trampling our constitutional rights of Freedom of Speech and Freedom to Assemble, denying the right to know what our government is doing and that they are following the law themselves, or any of the other wrongful acts being done by Walker and his Republican allies, it needs to stop.

It has become fully apparent to any but the most devout Walkerites that these actions have absolutely nothing to do with fixing budgets or creating jobs.  It is solely to grab as much power as they can to ride roughshod over the people in order to benefit their special interest friends.

It is also just another example of why the elections on April 5, as well as the recall efforts, are so very important.  It will take a long, long time to clean up the mess that Walker has created in less than three months.  It will only take longer, or even make it impossible, if we don't show Walker and his ilk that the Constitution is still valid and why the phrase "we the people" has as much significance, if not more, as the day it was written.

AFTERWORD: Melissa Sargent said that she is to appear in court on April 8.  When asked, she said that she does not know what they will do that day.  She said that she would need to speak to a lawyer, or even several, before making that decision.  But she added that at the moment we were speaking with each other, her inclination was to fight it.  She said that she does not believe that Mike Huebsch , the Department of Administration and Administrative Code has the authority to override the State or U.S. Constitution.


  1. Nice summary, Cog.

    My kids, who are not old enough to vote, also made their own signs and have gone to the capitol to walk and let their voices be heard. We did not put them up to it and they have friends who are not going downtown with no hard feelings. And they also know that the police are doing their job and are not making policy. It shows that the kids are more mature than Fitzgerald, Walker, et al..

    That said, it's too bad that Huebsch and Walker and the rest of the bad people who are poisoning our state with their hate don't have to enforce the law themselves (or break it as matters were). That way, the kids could actually see how individuals can turn into monsters. A hard lesson, yes. Necessary too.

  2. Designated Free Speech Zones may be annoying, unfair and even deplorable, but they are apparently legal.
    Bush loved them, Amy Goodman got nabbed for deliberately not being in one in (I believe it was) Minneapolis, the Berkeley campus as well as numerous other Universities in the USA require them, supposedly they were used at the Democratic National Conventions in 1988 and 2004. I'm pretty sure they're protected by the PATRIOT Act, which Obama likes. Hear that? Obama wants more PATRIOT act, so - more bullshit you can beleive in from that guy, like we need more.
    Once again I'll say my guess is that hell yeah they can "get away with this" and finally I'll say it's a damned if you do and damned if you don't situation. I think Russ Feingold's Healthcare info meetings were shot to hell by noisy "activists", that would be frustrating and got in the way of doing business for sure. Or, how about if a bunch of nuts brandishing bloody-fetuses and other horrors to protest abortion descended upon the Capitol and disrupted daily business, how would we feel? annoyed? harassed? if it was right-to-lifers pushing fake hospital gurneys around the streets of Madison instead of the tractors for solidarity, well that would be gross too. I wouldn't wanna be late for work as they hold up traffic.
    If Sarah Palin sat in the rotunda with her cronies yelling and banging a drum for a week might we wanna throw a net around her and put her in a nice safe spot far enough away where no one can hear her??
    One guy's "Terrorist" is another guy's "Freedom Fighter". My gut sez this was staged. I'm not really concerned if this couple is "using" their kids, everyone brings their kids up with their own values, that will include whatever types of political engagement. More pertinent question is did they plan for this to "go viral" thru the blogs and my goodness they had a camera ready... hmm
    Staging would be lame, Fitzwalker and Co. do more heinous crap before breakfast everyday than anyone could keep up with, if Assembly persons are locked out of their own offices and the Assembly chamber when they're supposed to be voting and working...big whoop about some lady and her kids. We already know we got some serious serious problems, what's this bringing to the table really? Other vids seem raw, moving, sincere ~ this seems like pissy Cam Whoring to me.
    (bam! just made some new friends. Lol)

  3. @Annie K. said... "My gut sez this was staged. "

    nope - it was not - your gut is wrong.

  4. When my son was 12 years old he led his middle school classmates out the door and down to the capitol to protest the first Gulf War. I knew nothing about it until that evening. That age is not too young to protest!

  5. Had it been "Cam Whoring", they would have refused to go to the police department in the second video, and made the police drag them away in handcuffs.

  6. Can you believe the nerve of some people? The sheer effrontery of encouraging one's children to participate in the political process astounds me. Take this father, for example:

    What was he thinking? It certainly wasn't to indoctrinate his children into being good quiet patriots. If anything, he should have been using that day off of school with his kids to protest the teachers' sick-out.

    All of the above is me, trying to play the part of the other side--poorly, I'm afraid. The tall one in the picture is me. The short ones are my two kids.

    Melissa Sargent needs to fight this as hard as she can. The Wisconsin State Constitution is unambiguously on her side. Article I, Section 4: "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."

    That doesn't mean the state government isn't allowed to take away the right to peaceably assemble. That means they aren't even allowed to limit it.

  7. @Annie K -- Everyone going to Madison these days has a "camera ready". I never go down to Madison without one and I always have it around my neck and ready to go. Doesn't mean I'm staging anything or up to anything. Don't witch hunt here.

  8. why is this worth posting up anywhere? pretty pathetic that we would try to make this pointless childish intention into a matter worth discussion. There are far more important things than not being able to speak your mind. Things like this will never change, so stop clinging onto the idea that we're being oppressed. Go to Mexico, Libya, Brazil, etc. Be grateful that genocide isn't a factor here in USA.

  9. Why is it not totally inconsistent to disallow children to hold a sign in the capital building while the Supreme Court allows the Westboro Baptist idiots the right to show up at a private funeral service and annoyed the bereaved? The capital building in Wisconsin is a legitimate place within which to express your political viewpoint. Sure they have a "designated" spot for it but come on, really? It just seems a little daft to disallow a sign to be hung from a banister as long as said sign is not dangerous and disruptive which, as we can see, this sign clearly was not.

  10. @ Annie K

    Almost everyone has a camera, video recorder, & or phone with these capabilities downtown. It is not surprising that they had one available to record the event. Whether or not this was staged I do not know all I know is these actions against free speech are not a good thing. I also know enough of my history to understand that eventually when the working class people are pushed too far things break into total anarchy. Hopefully we can bring things back from anarchy but the way they are moving forward right now it is only a matter of time. History has shown us this over and over again in rome, greece, france, russia, italy just to name a few. once you push people into a corner where they have to fight to survive people get real mean real fast. Personally I am amazed at the peacefulness of the protests to date and love seeing everyone take strides to be heard. This kind of protest is actually very common in Europe and I am glad to see it starting to happen here as well!

  11. I believe the Patriot Act expired Feb 28, 2011 without being reactivated.

  12. "Free speech zones" are total bullshit. Period. That is a form of censorship with is purely unconstitutional. The Constitution doesn't say "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech--except in the Capitol Rotunda on certain floors."

    This "Department of Administration Code" the officer keeps referencing is just another way to try to take away a right that is guaranteed by our Constitution--this goes beyond the authority of the state of Wisconsin and I truly hope that Walker & Company get their asses sued off for this blatant violation.

  13. As far as your concern, there are cameras at the Capitol at pretty much all times these days. Many cell phones are cameras now too, so yes, there would likely have just been a number of cameras around.

    I applaud these kids for standing up for their future!

  14. Just because a parent has a camera and records a child's activity does not mean the parent pushed the child into the activity. As a mother of a very disciplined and self motivated child I took her to things that I did not have interest in or support. I took her to a GWBush rally in West Allis years ago. I am a not a Bush fan. I believe good parents allow their child to experience life's mistakes and victories and keeps a record of it. The record of my childrens' lives is on photographs, 8mm film, VHS, digital imagery, and digital video. A digital camera ready parent does not equate to a parent using the child.

  15. After 6 weeks of protests, I think that children around 12 years old can be keenly aware of issues that affect them and the State they will inherit because voters were deceived by the TENTACLE$ OF WEALTH.

  16. Just more of czar Walker's doings. What a pathetic person he is!

  17. I wouldn't call them "Walkerites." More like "Walkeries," with the Teutonic pronunciation.

  18. Annie:
    Most people these days have a video camera in their pocket with them, it is call a "cell phone". So please don't read too much into the fact that this was caught on video.

  19. This is a pretty poor blog post that entirely fails to address the issue at hand, in favor of an uninteresting and irrelevant examination of the judgment of the parents and whether this was an authentic action by the two sons. The post and the comments just openly ignore the issue, and that displays a real lack of imagination and some pretty poor judgment.

    It's just small. And AnnieK is particularly small in refusing to recognize a point that even the two children were able to understand: America is a free speech zone. Throwing out a bunch of red herrings and straw man to cover the unconstitutionality of the administrative code isn't gonna change that. We all know the code violates the wisconsin constitution. We all know the family and the two sons were doing none of the disruptive things AnnieK lists. What gives? Why so cynical, AnnieK? Just because the Fitzgerald's twist the law and use people and throw citizens away like pieces of meat, doesn't mean these two parents would use their sons to make a political point. It's obviously a civics lesson -- one that AnnieK never learned.

    When I say it's small, you can include small-hearted as well as small-minded in your definition.

  20. Sturgeon: Thank you.

    I'd just like to reiterate what tonegalli said in an earlier comment: If the US Supreme Court agrees that the Westboro Baptists can protest a funeral with bull-horns and billboards - mind you, a funeral: a highly personal time when those grieving must say final goodbyes to the corpse of their recently passed loved one - then how can anyone argue that quietly carrying a sign into a public building is going too far?

    Seriously, what happened to this state? Since when was the Department of Administration so scared of it's constituents that they have to keep them quiet by restricting their speech rights? Oh, right - since Walker decided to stop listening to Wisconsin and listen to ALEC instead (

    BTW, did you know that Walker's budget is actually not going to save any money? Read about it here:

    - A Wisconsinite.

  21. Sargent is actually the Senate Sargent-at-Arms.

  22. Melissa, Justin and the boys live a block away. The Sargent boys are quite independent, and well-read too. Even five years ago, one of them carried a USA constitution around in his back pocket. Like my nephew, who in 8th grade read two newspapers every morning, and was one of the earliest and youngest endorsers of Obama in the Madison area, the Sargent boys do their own research. How wonderful that they have this opportunity to apply what they are studying in Madison's fine public schools. It's also great that their parents also teach them right and wrong.