Burning a Bridge

Democracy is not pretty. Democracy is very disruptive…but I agree with you. They should be able to put the sign up. That’s democracy.

-Rep. Steve Doyle (D-Onalaska)

Two bald eagles circled overhead as a group that would swell to 50 people hoisted signs and banners and defiantly stomped to the crest of a pedestrian bridge in the Town of Campbell, a small municipality nestled against La Crosse, Wis.

They weren’t there to call for Barack Obama’s impeachment or to protest the president’s countless trespasses against the Constitution, as they’d done a number of times in the past at the same place. Their goal this time was to draw attention to a recent Town of Campbell ordinance likely enacted specifically to target them.

The ordinance proclaims, “No person shall display, place, erect, post, maintain, install, affix, or carry any sign, flags, banners, pennants, streamers, balloons, or any other similar item” on any overpass over a highway with a speed limit over 40 miles per hour or within 100 feet of any such structure.

The ordinance passed the Campbell town board 4-1 after a couple audience comments protesting the measure, according to unofficial Town of Campbell minutes from their Oct. 8 meeting. It effectively establishes “free speech zones” in which the Constitution may or may not apply.

It essentially stops the Overpass activists, who had been participating in a national effort loosely held together under the banner “Overpasses for America,” or “Overpasses for Obama’s Impeachment” from protesting on any of the bridges in Campbell over I-90 and is clearly written with their activities in mind. There are only two possible locations, and both fall under the entreaties of the ordinance.

It’s highly unlikely a child riding her bicycle trailing dozens of balloons back and forth across the overpass – equally distracting to interstate traffic as a single individual holding an American flag – would be ticketed.

The conclusion that the Overpassers are being targeted specifically and the law being enforced arbitrarily is practically impossible to avoid. That hypothetical individual holding the flag? It actually happened; he was fined about a month ago on the same bridge.

Incensed by the ordinance and the willingness of the Campbell police to enforce it, the Overpass agitators began agitating. It came to a head in the Dec. 7 rally that drew the largest group and the most fines. Four forfeitures were compelled at the event, but it would’ve been more if many protesters hadn’t refused to show the Campbell police their ID.

One of the protesters, Chris Muller, wrote on his blog, “Remember when we were free to display signs and voice our opinions without fear of persecution?” Mr. Muller was particularly agape that one protester who had a large wooden Cross in tow was fined over that symbol of his faith.

The event wasn’t purely a disciplined exercise in Thoreauesque civil disobedience though. According to social media, some members of the group shouted at the police. On Facebook, squabbles erupted between certain Overpass protesters and GOPers urging civility toward police. After all, the police are doing their jobs and it’s the Town officials with whom a beef is had, one said. An Overpass protester shot back by calling local Republican Party members wimps and idiots on that most public of forums.

This is all superfluous rambunctery. Conservatives turning their cannons on each other represents a disappointing lack of discipline. Name calling and harassing police distracts from the purpose of the event.

It’s a worthy purpose; the ordinance most certainly curtails democracy, but such rules can sometimes fly in small towns. It’s also been greeted warmly by motorists; the chorus of horns and thumbs-up was at times cacophonous.

The Town of Campbell is well advised to get rid of the restriction. The optics of police slapping protesters with hefty fines for engaging in such nefarious activities as peaceably holding signs, banners, flags, and crosses on a publicly funded pedestrian overpass are not positive ones for the Town.

And peaceably it was, until the police got involved, provoking the unfortunate guffaws, the common result of a loosely controlled and hotly impassioned group.

Even state Rep. Steve Doyle (D-Onalaska), who represented the neighboring 94th Assembly district, sympathizes with the Overpassers’ situation, all but calling for Campbell to repeal the ordinance:

In the clip recorded at a free speech forum at UW-La Crosse in November, Mr. Doyle said, “Democracy is not pretty. Democracy is very disruptive…but I agree with you. They should be able to put the sign up. That’s democracy.”

This is America, not Somalia. Governmental bodies must remember their obligation to the supreme law of the land, the United States Constitution. As Mr. Doyle said, sometimes democracy is messy.

This is a mess. The Tea Party and Overpassers filled the pot, but clumsy and amateurish officials in the Town of Campbell knocked it on the floor. But it’s not simply a spill; political philosophers have long warned against the kind of governance demonstrated on a small scale by Campbell.

The most oppressive systems of government in history don’t necessarily enforce strict sets of rules and harsh punishments. Instead they foist byzantine rules, ambiguous to the average citizen, enforced arbitrarily and capriciously, and often motivated by a desire to silence disquiet using the tools of the state.

That some of our local elected officials and their lawyers have such a threadbare understanding of the Constitution, would write a law to target a specifically annoying group, and would put their thumb on law enforcement to carry out these wishes is downright frightening.

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About the writer: Chris Rochester is editor in chief of Morning Martini. He’s an armchair politico, veteran of several campaigns, and communications specialist. He's the communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.