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by Autumn Smith
Is free speech really free? Do you really have a right peacefully to assemble? As a citizen, I wanted to put these key questions to the test in my home state, Michigan, last year. But I found out that 'free' speech and assembly can come with a price tag -- one that can include from my experience, detainment, harassment, threats of formal arrest, and even assault.
On May 4, 2011 I decided to hold a 'one-woman protest,' inside the Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing, Michigan. My goal was to protest a informal rule that has stood at the Capitol -- one that I believed was unconstitutional --that forbade citizens from holding up any signs inside the Capitol Building. To me, Democracy is not a spectator sport -- if we can't exercise our First Amendment right to free speech and to peacefully assemble, democracy cannot really work.
My story began when I spent the late Winter of 2010 and early Spring of 2011. I had been networking on Facebook with people in Wisconsin during the beginning of the "Wisconsin Uprising" -- when the citizens of Wisconsin fought back through peaceful demonstrations, rallies and protests in response to Governor Scott Walker’s Budget Repair bill that was passed without a quorum present and that would strip the right of workers to collectively bargain. I had been watching in horror as citizens of Wisconsin had made their way to the Capitol building in Madison to express their disapproval over the recently passed budget bill, signed into law by Governor Scott Walker who claimed that workers would need to be stripped of their right to collectively bargain in order to balance the budget, only to find themselves literally locked out of their own state Capitol by capitol police officers.The citizens eventually forced their way into the Capitol Building, where , Capitol police officers began to ticket and even arrest individual citizens, for disorderly conduct or 'other conduct prohibited', for silently and peacefully holding up signs in the rotunda, Assembly gallery and conference rooms of the Capitol building.
I connected on Facebook with some of the individuals who had been subject to arrest or who had received tickets, to get first hand accounts about their experience in being arrested or ticketed About six individuals told me their stories and some even showed me videos of the Capitol police officers issuing them tickets. Other videos showed police arresting citizens without advising them of any reason for their arrest, only to then detain them in the basement of the Capitol. They were handcuffed and in some instances even physically carried away by as many as six officers. The police would keep them handcuffed in the basement of the Capitol while they gathered information from them, there did not appear to be a formal booking process that took place, and determined whether or not to issue a ticket or release them. If charged the charges were usually misdemeanors of disorderly conduct, for violating a Assembly rule which were being made up. If released they were usually released a short time later. If this was occurring 'across the pond' to my peacefully protesting neighbors in Wisconsin, what made me think this might not occur in my own state?
I decided I needed to find out how far-reaching these tactics might go in Michigan. I knew that there has been a informal 'rule' at the Michigan Capitol that no signs are allowed inside the Capitol building. Wanting to find out more, I emailed Michigan Capitol staff member Steve Benkovsky, Agency Director Legislative Council Facilities Agency, regarding my concerns about the 'no sign' rule in the Capitol Building. I received a email response on March 28, 2011 from ReLonda Price, Michigan State Capitol-Capitol Facilities Office which directed me to a PDF file titled 'Capitol Event and Exhibit Planner' had the very rule that I intended on protesting.
With this confirmation that an action had been taken by Capitol Staff against our constitutional rights to petition government for redress of grievances [post link to first amendment danielle], I decided that direct action was necessary to get the word out. I sent a press release to local news media,stating my intention of going inside the Michigan Capitol with a sign and refusing to leave or remove my sign if asked to do so by anyone at the Capitol. The sign I made read: "THIS IS A TEST OF THE EMERGENCY FREE SPEECH SYSTEM." The phrase was perfect for what I was going to protest, I felt. It also honored Ben Masel, a well-known activist from Wisconsin who had recently passed away. The last sign he held bore the same message.
I entered the Capitol building alone. Armed only with my camera, the sign, a copy of the United StatesConstitution, a copy of The Michigan Constitution and a copy of the October 2010 Snyder v. Phelps ruling from the United States Supreme Court that determined that signs held in a public space are considered free speech and is protected under the First Amendment, I was ready to take action. About 10 seconds after entering the capitol, A police officer stopped me. He instructed me that I had to leave. I was a bit nervous. My heart was racing and my voice was shaking. I knew that I could potentially be fined or even arrested for what I was doing, though my actions were clearly protected by all the documents I had brought with me. But my anxiety turned into passion and determination. Passion to protect the democracy I was taught about in school, and determination to uphold my rights as a US Citizen no matter what the price.
Upon entering the Capitol Building, I was approached by a Michigan State Police Officer, who instructed me that I could not have a sign inside the Capitol building. I politely, but firmly stated that I was there to protest the informal 'no sign' rule and that I felt it was unconstitutional and therefore made the rule unenforceable. I then told the officer that I was peaceful, I had no intent of causing trouble and that I would be in the rotunda peacefully exercising my First Amendment Right. After making my way to the rotunda, I was approached by a man in a red coat, no name given who politely informed me that I could not have a sign inside the building. I explained to him that I had already spoken to a police officer and made him aware that I was there.
A few moments later Steve Benkovsky came up to tell me I could not be in the building with a sign. I again stated that it was my Constitutional right to be in there with a sign and that my rights were protected under the US Constitution, Michigan Constitution and in the SCOTUS ruling in Snyder v Phelps. He then told me that I needed to go outside and that I could have free speech outside. I again explained that I had the right to have free speech inside the Capitol and that the informal rule was unconstitutional. I was then escorted down to the ground level into the State of Michigan police post inside the Capitol building.
Inside the post the officer asked me for my ID to which I handed him my drivers license. Steve continued to tell me that I could not have my sign in the building. I responded by pulling out my copy of the Supreme Court Ruling and the Michigan Constitution that I felt protected what I was doing. I then questioned if I was being arrested, because if I wasn't I had no reason to be there and I was going to continue to walk around the building with my sign. I then walked out of the police post and made my way back up to the rotunda. I was then met by another man in a red coat, who told me I had to leave because signs are not allowed in the building. Again I stated that i had the right to be there and before I could finish my sentence the man grabbed my right upper arm and would not let go. I repeatedly asked him to take his hands off of me, he did not. I stated that I had not placed my hands on him and that I was peaceful and again I asked that he remove his hands from me. He then proceeded to shove me into the crown molding of the wall. I stated 'Stop shoving me sir." I panned my camera up to his badge and looked at it with my eyes to get his name, Richard Carpenter, Sgt of Arms of the House of Representatives.
I told him I had already been dealing with the police officer and that they were aware I was there. I also told him if he removed his hand from me I would politely walk with him where he would like me to go. He then escorted me to the elevator and we began to dispute my right to be in the capitol building with a sign. I told him the same things I had previously stated to the Officer and Capitol staff member. He took me down to the ground level where we the officer i had previously been dealing with met us. He again placed his hand on me and I asked him to remove his hand which he did as soon as the officer walked up. He then told the officer that I had a sign and the officer acknowledged that he was aware and was figuring out how to deal with me. I then told him he had no right to grab me, to which he denied grabbing me. I then reminded him that it was ok, I had the whole incident on video and that when people saw it they would know he grabbed me. He then admitted to placing his hands on me, but still denied grabbing me.
The police officer then told me that I needed to leave or I would be arrested for trespassing. I then told the officer to do what he felt he needed to do but that I was not leaving. Richard then began to argue again my right to be in the building with a sign citing that the House and Senate have rules and i have to follow the. I stated that I did not have to follow the rules if they violated my First Amendment rights and that if the rules violated my right they were unenforceable. Richard, the officer and myself then moved down the hall about 20 feet and I again asked if I was under arrest, because if I wasn't then I had the right to leave and walk around the Capitol building. Richard then informed me that I was not being arrested, but that I was being detained for a "proper investigation." A few minutes later Steve returned and stated that I could be in the building with my sign so long as I attached it to my body. It should be noted that whole time I was wearing the sign around my neck. Steve then had some maintenance workers find a piece of string who then assisted in attaching the string to my sign and tying it around my waist. I then talked with Steve stating that I was happy we were able to compromise, but that I was still going to be vocally voicing my opinion as I walked around the building.
After being harassed, assaulted detained, by not being allowed to freely walk around and having to stay with the police officer and Sergeant of Arms, and threatened with arrest,I ultimately was allowed by Steve Benkovsky to wear my sign, although my rights were abridged when Steve made me secure the sign to my body and also by being approached multiple times by various individuals because I was in the building with a sign.
What I learned from my experience is that democracy is under attack -- in Michigan as well as in Wisconsin. We as citizens have allowed government overreach, bit by bit, in the name of 'National Security". As much as some would like to blame the government for the atrocities that are being committed both domestically and abroad, we can only blame ourselves.I do not think it is too late to fight back. I just think the fight is going to be much harder, and much longer than if we had been on top of things and not fallen asleep at the wheel. Right now light of democracy is dim and like electricity it needs a power source to survive. We as citizens have that very power -- if we are willing to take a stand as individuals as well as together.
I plan on continuing to fight for democracy in the State of Michigan and I encourage others to do the same. I hope that you will join me in writing to the Legislators of Michigan and asking for their support in allowing free speech to thrive in the Michigan Capitol once again.
Photo courtesy of CedarBendDrive.
Autumn Smith is a political activist from Michigan. Her activism has targeted key issues including, Mich. Enbridge Oil Spill, LGBT issues, HIV education, anti-bullying, reproductive rights, Occupy Movement & petitioning elected officials for recall.