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I have been fascinated by the ever-narrowing definition of public space where our freedoms to speak and assemble are constitutionally guaranteed. From the occupation of the State Capitol in Madison last spring to the fractal iterations of OWS across the country, it is apparent that the most radically contentious and potentially violent site of political resistance is the visible physical body. It is also clear that those who control the definitions of concepts like "public," "space," "assembly" and "speech" are able to set the parameters of visibility. This story is about the diminution of allowable visibility, at least according to one specific sheriff in Southeastern Wisconsin's Kenosha County who informed volunteers last Saturday that signs measuring in square feet are illegal on public grounds but signs measuring in square inches should be just fine.

Three recall volunteers set up a signature gathering station near the town hall of Brighton, Wisconsin early Saturday morning, January 7. They were there at 7:00 a.m in order to be available for residents who bring their weekly garbage to a nearby drop-off. Around 8:40 a.m a man in a truck pulled in to dump some garbage. He approached the volunteers, informed them that he was a sheriff, and told them that they could not be there. One volunteer told the man that they were on public property, and had previously contacted the Town of Brighton Clerk, who said it would not be a problem. The sheriff disagreed, and told them to leave. The volunteers asked him his name, and he introduced himself as Sheriff David Beth, though he got visibly angry with them, and as he was leaving the dump, informed them that deputies would soon be arriving.

Coincidentally, a reporter for Kenosha News also happened to be at the dump at the same time. She covered the story here (but you need to sign in), where I first encountered it via a Facebook posting. Interested in the story, I interviewed one of the volunteers on the phone, and obtained their incident report via email. They have asked that their names and occupations be withheld from this diary.

From the volunteer's report:

At approximately 9:00 a.m, two sheriff’s deputies arrived and were uncertain as to what the issue was. We showed them the back of our Walker Volunteer “IDs” which described the role of petitioning and free speech. I asked them specifically what ordinance or statute we are violating. They could not identify one.  

At approximately 9:10 a.m, Sheriff Beth arrived in his car. He stated that we can petition, but we can not have any signs of any kind as this would imply that the town is endorsing a candidate. Our signs made no mention of a candidate; they said “Recall Walker - Sign Here.” Additionally, our signs were on our cars, not staked or affixed to the ground. I inquired if we could carry our signs or use sandwich boards. He informed me that I was “pushing it”. He did say that our buttons were ok on our coats. Sheriff Beth repeatedly asked us if we were “all on the same page?”  We complied and removed all of our signs.

On the phone, I was told that the deputies seemed pretty perplexed as to why they were there. The signs were taken off the car and put in the front seat. A sign was still visible through the window. One of the deputies informed the volunteer that "he needed to make it invisible." While the volunteers were complying, the deputies, who were at all times "professional and polite" were asking the sheriff (their boss) what statutes they were following.

According the the Kenosha News article:

The sheriff, who was out of town when he later spoke with the News, said he didn’t have the laws with him. “But it’s been drilled into my head that a town cannot support a candidate,” he said. “You can’t make town property look like campaign headquarters.” He said his understanding was that political signs were prohibited on all public property.

It should be noted that one of the volunteers has frequently employed the exact configuration throughout various sites around Kenosha county, and at numerous times deputies had seen, and not responded, to his signage. In fact, during a prior discussion about allowability, a GOP County Supervisor had directly stated that "a sign simply can not be staked or affixed to the ground" which is why they used no "yard style" signage.

When asked if the volunteers could wear "sandwich board" style signs, Sheriff Beth first responded with "that is pushing it," but later said, "probably." The sheriff did specifically note that it was okay for the volunteers to wear their buttons and 3" by 3.5" "Recall Walker" lanyards around their necks.

The volunteers pointed out that having no visibility was more dangerous for them. They would have to approach people, which would "increase the possibility of confrontation." This issue of safety got no response from the sheriff.

From my phone conversation:

We stayed and collected more sigs… had our buttons on and lanyards around our necks… we kept going. Later on, deputies came by and were polite and nice.

The sheriff stated his support for Governor Walker… and we all heard it….  We were putting our signs away and the deputies were trying to find the citation of any relevant statute…  the Sheriff almost backed into a car when he was leaving. It was comical.

I see it like this: a guy goes to drop his garbage off. He sees us, disagrees with our politics, and he loses it. The problem is, this guy has power. He misused his power. A key word in "law enforcement" is law. He couldn't come close to citing a statute.

So what size sign is okay? 3" x 3.5"? What about 4"x5"… would that be okay? Do we cross the line with a 6" x 8" sign? This guy was just shooting from the hip. He's a Republican in a Democratic district, and this isn't going to help him at all. It is an elected position.

The law is anecdotal for the sheriff. He "has it drilled into his head" that he is right, though logic and observation would tell him that if he is right, all the other sheriffs around the state must be wrong. As any advertiser knows, the scale of visibility is also about proximity and distance. The smaller the message, the closer the reader must get to the text. But in this case, the message isn't on the sign. The message is the diminishment of visibility. It is the power of a petty official to be ridiculous on a Saturday morning, make up arbitrary graphic standards for public display, and consequently shut down the constitutional rights of three citizens with whom he disagrees.

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To Help The Recall:

Donate at United Wisconsin's website.

Originally posted to noise of rain on Mon Jan 09, 2012 at 09:52 AM PST.

Also republished by Badger State Progressive.

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