MADISON, Wis. — Police on Wednesday warned observers of the daily sing-along protest inside the Wisconsin Capitol that they could be arrested just for watching, but hours later a police spokeswoman said only participants would be ticketed.
The warning of observers is a new development in the two-week crackdown on protesters congregating inside the Capitol. Police already have issued more than 175 tickets to people for gathering without a required permit.
"Observers will not receive citations," Stephanie Marquis, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Administration, which oversees Capitol Police, said in an email after Wednesday's protest. She did not explain why warnings were being issued if there were not going to be any arrests and didn't immediately respond to a follow-up question concerning that.
Protesters have assembled inside the Capitol nearly every weekday over the noon hour for more than two years to sing anti-Republican songs that skewer Gov. Scott Walker and others. They sing them to the tune of popular protest songs like "This Land Is Your Land" and "If I Had a Hammer," with rewritten lyrics specific to Wisconsin.
Police began a renewed crackdown on the singers after a federal judge ruled last month that the state could require groups of 20 or more to get a permit to gather inside the Capitol. But participants in the sing along refuse to get a permit, saying they don't need one in order to express their free speech rights.
Police had been targeting only those who were actively singing or participating in the protests on the Capitol's ground level. But this week they started warning observers on the upper floors that they could be arrested as well.
One of those warned was Democratic state Rep. Sondy Pope, of Middleton. She told the Madison weekly newspaper Isthmus that she was threatened with arrest by police on Tuesday. She did not immediately return a phone message from The Associated Press seeking comment on Wednesday.
"I have a duty to observe what is happening to my constituents who are expressing their discontent," Pope told Isthmus. "How can I be arrested for that?"
Marquis, the Walker administration spokeswoman, said 15 tickets were issued Wednesday but did not say what they were for. Most of the tickets issued to date have been for gathering without a permit.
The chief of staff for Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald sent an email to other Republican Senate offices on July 26 warning that observing the protests could result in being ticketed.
"I have been reminded by the Department of Administration that if you are in the vicinity of the illegal demonstrations that have been taking place over the noon hour in the rotunda, you will be considered part of the protests and are subject to being ticketed," Dan Romportl wrote in the email. "Police will soon begin enforcing the permit rules on the floors above the ground floor."
Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach watched Wednesday's protests but was not threatened with arrest, even as those around him were.
"It's ridiculous," Erpenbach said. "It's over the top. It's really bullying, what we're seeing."
Erpenbach earlier this week sent Walker's administration a letter questioning the need to handcuff the singers before they are issued a $200 ticket for gathering without a permit.
"It's sad that you're seeing people handcuffed for something that's essentially a jaywalking ticket," Erpenbach said.
Another Democrat and former judge, state Rep. Fred Kessler of Milwaukee, stopped by Wednesday's protest briefly and was surprised to hear police were threatening observers with arrest.
"I think people have absolutely every right to be in the Capitol," Kessler said.
Erpenbach and Kessler were among several Democratic lawmakers who watched Wednesday's protests, which attracted about 75 singers and as many observers. Two people wore bright orange vests with a piece of paper attached to the back that said, "Tourists Do Not Arrest."
Mike Anstett, a retired teacher from Spring Green, was in Madison for the day and decided to stop by the Capitol to see what all the fuss was about. He was a floor above the singers and police warned him that he could be arrested just for watching.
Anstett said he couldn't believe he was threatened with arrest and wasn't sure whether he would leave or stick it out and risk getting handcuffed and ticketed.
"I'm really torn but I'm going to push it to the limit," he said.
Anstett stayed most of the hour and was not arrested.