Secret Service tightens security at Republican National Convention, prompting ACLU lawsuit

Coverage of the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio | source: Walt Disney Television

Rules approved by Milwaukee officials that limit demonstrations outside the Republican National Convention drew criticism, leading to a federal lawsuit that accused the city of restricting demonstrators’ First Amendment freedoms.

Key Players

Founded in 1856, the Republican National Committee oversees the political agenda, strategies, and fundraising for the Republican Party. One of its largest responsibilities is organizing the Republican National Convention (RNC), which is held every four years to select the party’s presidential nominee. 

The Coalition to March on the RNC comprises activist groups and unions from across the country. Its mission is to “stop the Republican’s (sic) racist and reactionary agenda, defend reproductive rights, and demand peace, justice, and equity.” It has led protests against the Republican Party in the past, including in Milwaukee during a 2023 Republican presidential primary debate.

Further Details

In August 2023, the Coalition to March on the RNC said that its protest at the Republican presidential primary debate was a “warm up” for its march on the convention.

“We plan to march to within sight and sound of the front doors of the convention center,” the group stated.

The 2024 RNC is scheduled to take place in Milwaukee from July 15 to 18, 2024. With an expected turnout of at least 30,000 people, it will also be broadcast globally. Since the convention is a “national special security event,” the U.S. Secret Service has organized its security procedures in coordination with state and local law enforcement. 

Secret Service Director Kimberly Cheatle said safety plans for the convention have been in the works for over a year. More than 70 groups have registered online to protest at the event, a spokesperson for Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said. 

“We’re fully prepared,” Cheatle stated at a press briefing. “We realize that there most likely will be demonstrations, but we’re prepared to address those.” Milwaukee Police Chief Jeffrey Norman stated that, if necessary, law enforcement would call in assistance from police in other cities, as well as the National Guard.

On March 19, the Milwaukee Common Council, the city’s governing body, approved an ordinance requiring protesters to march along a specific route, rather than gathering randomly outside the event. Demonstrators must also apply for a special permit to protest and can parade only within a seven-hour window. Those who violate the rules are subject to a fine.

On May 23, RNC counsel Todd Steggerda sent a letter to the Secret Service, asking it to increase safety parameters and expressing concern that the designated protest area “creates an elevated and untenable safety risk” for attendees. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other national Republican figures have also been in communication with the Secret Service to discuss security concerns.


Coalition speaks out against ordinance

The Coalition to March on the RNC spoke out against the proposed safety measures, saying the city has yet to provide “concrete details about the hard and soft security zones for the RNC.” 

“The City has bent over backwards to accommodate the racist, reactionary Republicans while stonewalling Milwaukee community members who want to have their voices heard in protest,” the coalition stated in a press release. “Even their new permitting system makes it clear that their priority is catering to the Republicans and not every day Milwaukeeans.”

ACLU of Wisconsin files First Amendment lawsuit 

On June 5, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Milwaukee, accusing it of “violating our First Amendment rights” to protest the RNC, and for restricting protest “in a manner where it can be seen and heard by attendees of the Convention.”

The to-be-determined protest perimeter “gives City officials the discretion to finally designate the parade route only days or weeks before the RNC, which deprives the Coalition the right to seek meaningful judicial review of the parade route designation and the time limits placed on its march,” the lawsuit asserts.  

Tim Muth, an ACLU attorney, accused the city of providing disproportionate security to protect RNC attendees, while failing to protect its opponents.

“Sadly, the city does not appear to demonstrate that same commitment to protecting the First Amendment rights of people who want to express opposing views on the streets of Milwaukee during the RNC,” Muth stated.

Ryan Cox, legal director of the Wisconsin ACLU, said it was “imperative that people can fully and freely exercise their rights” at major political events like party conventions. 

Law enforcement releases security plan 

On June 21, law enforcement authorities announced that demonstrators would be given two perimeters that extend around the arena, including a stage within sight of the convention. Vehicles will have to pass through checkpoints to travel between the two boundaries. 

Pedestrians will be allowed to move freely without being screened in these areas but only convention attendees will be allowed within the inner perimeter, where no weapons will be allowed. But under Wisconsin law, people will still be allowed to carry guns openly or concealed within blocks of the RNC, excluding machine guns, short-barreled shotguns, and silencers.

“It’s about behaviors,” Norman stated. “So, understand that there is going to be that level of surveillance and monitoring that that’s the particular right that you like to express. Just don’t do anything that could be considered a threat or harm to the public.”

However, protesters were not satisfied with the announcement, asserting the zones were too far from the convention, PBS reported.  

As of June 25, 2024, there were no further developments.