Janesville50.6°

Recall Walker petitioner removed from Hedberg library entrance

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
November 23, 2011
— Officials at Hedberg Public Library on Tuesday had a Recall Walker petitioner removed from where he had set up shop in a covered parking area at the library.

City officials say the library was within its rights in asking the petitioner to leave, and a library official claims recall petitioners had been harassing library patrons in recent days.


Still, the petitioner says he doesn't understand why he was asked to leave.


Lars Prip of Afton on Tuesday set up a desk with petitions to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker under the covered parking area on the north side of the library.


Prip, who said he represents the Democratic party-backed group United Wisconsin, indicated he was trying to get out of the rain and keep his petitions dry.


Prip was collecting signatures near an entrance when he said a library official told him he had to leave the area. Prip said the official didn't give a reason.


"They just said 'You have to leave,'" Prip said.


In an email to city staff last week, City Attorney Wald Klimczyk wrote that, under law, some public property is exempt from political free speech protections, and that public entities can lawfully prohibit political free speech inside public buildings.


"The Hedberg Public Library prohibits all political activity everywhere inside, including areas open to the public and the private staff and work areas," Klimczyk wrote. "The prohibition is uniformly applied to everyone, according to Library Director Bryan McCormick, so it is acceptable."


Janesville Police Sgt. Anne Brophy, one of two officers responding to the library Tuesday, said the city considers the covered parking area of the library to be part of the library building, and that allows library officials to bar recall petitioners from the area.


Brophy said recall petitioners can set up on adjacent sidewalks near the library or any public place as long as they aren't harassing anyone or blocking entrances, exits or rights of way.


Police Tuesday reviewed a list of Wisconsin state statutes Prip supplied which argue that he should be allowed to gather signatures on public property.


Police allowed Prip to stay near the library but made him move to a sidewalk on the north end of the property. Prip later went to a sidewalk next to the library's main entrance along Main Street and collected signatures there.


McCormick said Prip was asked to leave the covered parking area because of reports last weekend that recall petitioners were acting aggressively toward library patrons.


"We had some complaints of intimidation and harassment (of library) patrons. That's where we had some problems with some of the petitioners," McCormick said Tuesday in a voicemail message.


McCormick said the library was trying to ensure the comfort and well being of its patrons.


Brophy said she believes it was the first time police had to get involved since recall petition efforts began in Janesville. She said the petition efforts have been peaceful, and she was unaware of any complaints of petitioners acting aggressively.


Prip said he has been collecting recall signatures outside the library since last week, and he had about 130 signatures as of Tuesday. He denies harassing anyone at the library.


"I say 'Thank you,' that's as much of a conversation as I've had," he said. "When you think about it, the worst thing we could do is be aggressive to anyone. Why would you do that?"


WHAT ARE THE RULES?

Wisconsin does not have a clear law regulating whether citizens can circulate petitions on public property. The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board regulates elections and has compiled mountains of information about recall rules. In those mountains you won't find a clear list of places you can or cannot circulate petitions.


"We have searched for but not found any statute governing the appropriate or prohibited use of government buildings," GAB Director Kevin Kennedy wrote in March in an open letter about circulation of petitions.


The governmental body that owns the building would be responsible for those rules, and the rules would be subject to the First Amendment, Kennedy wrote.


The issue of restricting public activities on public property is "complex" and has been argued in many court cases, he wrote. The U.S. Supreme Court has determined that restrictions should be based on the use of the property.


-- Governments cannot universally prohibit public communication on streets or parks that have been recognized for public use or assembly "for time out of mind." For the state to enforce case-by-case prohibition of public use, the governmental body must show regulation is necessary. The state could enforce regulations on the time, place or manner of expression as long as the regulations allow alternative methods of communication and are specific and neutral.


-- A second category includes forums the state opened for public expression. The state is not compelled to keep the forum open, but as long as it does it is held to the same standards as traditional public forums.


-- The third category includes public property that's not been traditionally used for communication. "We have recognized the First Amendment does not guarantee access to property simply because it is owned or controlled by the government," the letter states.


The state can prohibit speech on such a property as long as the prohibition is reasonable and not simply because the public officials oppose the speaker's view.


As a side note, petitioners can circulate petitions within 100 feet of polling places as long as the petition is not about candidates or questions on a ballot.


To learn more, visit gab.wi.gov.

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