By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
A Wisconsin county has decided to do something about annoying and harassing electronic communications, including email and on social media. It’s made them illegal.
The Vernon County Board, on a 22-5 vote, passed an ordinance Thursday against sending electronic information “with the intent to annoy, offend, demean, ridicule, degrade, belittle, disparage or humiliate any person and which serves no legitimate purpose.”
The ordinance provides for a forfeiture of between $50 and $500, plus prosecution costs, with those “in default of payment” being subject to up to 30 days in jail.
Herbert Cornell, Vernon County Board chairman, said the ordinance was suggested by a group of Vernon County residents and supported by local law enforcement officials. He said the ordinance, which he voted for, is needed to deal with inappropriate expression, particularly on social media like Facebook.
“It’s supposed to be for bullying,” Cornell said. “You’ve got to have some sort of control.”
Cornell said he believes there have been instances of electronic bullying that have occurred in Vernon County but was unable to give specifics: “I’m not a computer person.”
The ordinance is nearly identical to one passed in April by the city of Viroqua, in Vernon County. The Viroqua ordinance uses the word “repeatedly” before a reference to forbidden communications.
A proposed ordinance containing similar language was rejected by the Fort Atkinson City Council in June.
Stacy Harbaugh, spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, said Friday she was not aware of any other Wisconsin municipalities that have passed such ordinances, but said she has seen similar language proposed for schools. She said her group is concerned that the Vernon County ordinance “is too broad and could be abused in its application.”
Harbaugh stressed that there is a difference that needs to be respected between “fighting words and free speech, between making threats and expressing an opinion, no matter how obnoxious it may be.”
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