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MADISON, Wis. — Police arrested about two dozen people in Wisconsin's Capitol rotunda Wednesday in the first crackdown on daily protesters since a federal judge ruled large groups need permits to gather in the building.
Many of the people arrested vowed to return on Thursday, saying they had a constitutional right to gather and sing in the Capitol.
The arrests mark the latest turn in the ongoing saga pitting protesters against Republican Gov. Scott Walker's administration.
A group of protesters has been gathering in the rotunda every day for two years, changing the words to well-known songs and using anti-Republican lyrics. The sing-alongs echo massive protests over Walker's contentious law stripping public workers of their union rights at the Capitol in early 2011.
Songs include such lyrics as, "Hit the road, Scott, and don't you come back no more." Another tune would be, "We'll keep singing 'til justice is done. We're not going away, oh Scotty."
Walker's administration revised its Capitol access policy in December 2011 to require permits for any organized activity in the Capitol, even if it was performed by only one person. Three or fewer people gathered to promote a cause are exempt. Police have issued the singers dozens upon dozens of citations.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit challenging the policy. U.S. District Judge William Conley issued a preliminary injunction on July 9 stating groups of fewer than 20 people don't need a permit and the policy's preference for cause-promoting speech was an unconstitutional restriction of speech and can't be enforced. He didn't rule on the constitutionality of the permit policy as a whole, however, setting a trial for Jan. 13.
Madison has a long, proud tradition of public protests, from a famous civil rights march in 1969 to violent clashes with police during the Vietnam era.
Capitol Police began warning the noontime singers last week over a bullhorn and loudspeaker that they were gathering in violation of the permit policy and were subject to arrest. They repeated that warning again Wednesday shortly after the singers began. They also placed a sandwich board with the warning written on it in the middle of the rotunda.
When the singers didn't stop, officers began handcuffing people and leading them away.
"The Capitol Police are upholding the law to ensure the building can be shared by all citizens who come to the Capitol," Stephanie Marquis, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Administration, which oversees the Capitol Police, said in an email statement.
Police cited the arrestees for failing to have a permit and released them within minutes. Marquis said police issued 25 no-permit citations to 22 people, Marquis said in a statement. Each ticket carries a $200.50 fine. Officers also cited a person for disorderly conduct for spitting on a protester, Marquis said.
Margit Moses of Madison said she has been singing off and on in the Capitol over the noon hour for the past two years. She was one of the first ones who received a no-permit ticket.
"I won't pay it," Moses said. "I will contest."
Moses said she and others ticketed planned to return to the Capitol on Thursday to defend their free speech rights.
Bill Dunn, 63, of Middleton, who described himself as a journalist, also got a no-permit ticket. He said he plans to plead not guilty.
"It's a public forum where people have a right to gather and petition their government," he said. "It's their permit, their rules, put in place to stifle dissent. ... I don't know where Conley got that 20 number, but it seems absurd to me. It's like he pulled a number out of a hat."
State Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, milled around the rotunda taking pictures. He called the arrests "insanity." The crackdown was more about the singers' anti-Republican message than not having a permit, he said.
"My God, people have a right to gather in their own state Capitol," Jauch said. "This is an overreach. It's excessive. It's unnecessary. By God, this isn't the Wisconsin I live in."
DOA didn't immediately release the exact number of arrests.
ACLU attorney Larry Dupuis said an email to The Associated Press that he was disappointed police chose to arrest the singers.
"It's my understanding that those arrested today were not disruptive or disorderly," Dupuis said. "The only reason for their arrest was because there were more than twenty of them and they didn't have a permit."