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Federal judge strikes down capitol-protest permit requirement

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A protestor gestures at the Capitol building, after a week's mass protest against a proposed bill by Republican Governor Scott Walker, in Madison, Wisconsin February 21, 2011. Wisconsin Governor Walker, whose bid to reduce public employee union bargaining power has triggered public protests, said on Sunday he expected Democrats who oppose his plan to return to the state and debate the issue this week. REUTERS/Darren Hauck
A protestor gestures at the Capitol building, after a week's mass protest against a proposed bill by Republican Governor Scott Walker, in Madison, Wisconsin February 21, 2011. Wisconsin Governor Walker, whose bid to reduce public employee union bargaining power has triggered public protests, said on Sunday he expected Democrats who oppose his plan to return to the state and debate the issue this week. REUTERS/Darren Hauck

UNDATED (WRN)  A federal judge has struck down portions of a policy aimed at controlling demonstrations at the state Capitol building.

The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the rules earlier this year, on behalf of UW-Madison assistant professor Michael Kissick. The lawsuit claims that the state permitting scheme, which requires permits for most gatherings of four or more people, is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge William Conley found that any policy targeting groups smaller than 20 people “sweeps in an enormous amount of ordinary activities that are unlikely to present any significant disturbance in the Capitol.” The judge also found that restrictions requiring permits using content-based criteria are unconstitutional as well.

ACLU attorney Larry Dupuis called the decision “a huge victory for free speech.”

Conley did reject arguments against a majority of the policy, saying the state has identified legitimate reasons for requiring them. Dupuis says they agree that “there needs to be some mechanism in place to allocate use of the space.”

The state has had policies in place regarding public demonstrations on state property since 1979, although changes were made to those rules last year as Capitol Police began a broader crackdown on protests inside the building. Smaller demonstrations against Governor Scott Walker and Republicans have continued at the Capitol since the spring of 2011, after the large scale protests over the governor’s collective bargaining bill ended.

In a statement, DOA spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said “We thank Judge Conley for his thorough review of this issue. His decision clearly recognizes that the permitting process is constitutional. The permitting process has been part of Wisconsin’s law since 1979 to protect the safety of the building and the public. We will continue to uphold the law to ensure the building can be shared by all citizens who come to the Capitol.”

A spokeswoman with the state Department of Justice says the agency is “currently reviewing the decision with our clients to decide whether or not an appeal is appropriate at this time.”

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