Joining the city of Viroqua, Vernon County passed its own electronic messaging bullying ordinance by a 22-5 vote last Thursday.
County board supervisors Dennis Brault, Gary Thompson, Francis Hynek, Donald Subera and A. Richard Brose voted against the ordinance. County board supervisors Brian Turben and Jerry Cade were not present.
Vernon County Sheriff John Spears spoke in favor of the county adopting the ordinance, which would prohibit sending certain electronic messages “with the intent to annoy, offend, demean, ridicule, degrade, belittle, disparage or humiliate any person and which serves no legitimate purpose.”
According to the ordinance, the fine for persons, who are found in violation, is no less than $50 and no more than $500 with prosecution costs. Persons defaulting on payment of the fine may be sentenced to the county jail until the fine is paid, but not exceeding 30 days.
Vernon County Corporation Counsel Greg Lunde said the ordinance is basically a word-for-word copy of Viroqua’s electronic messaging ordinance. Viroqua’s ordinance does include the word “repeatedly,” whereas the county’s does not.
“Bullying has been around as long as all of us, but this is a whole different area, a whole different area of expertise that requires special investigations,” Spears said. “Are we going to use this a ton? I hope not. But for me, I’d like to see it as a tool that we can use as a local ordinance.”
Kim Ward, an attorney in Viroqua and co-coordinator with the Vernon County Bully Project, voiced her support of the ordinance.
Ward said this ordinance covers areas of cyberbullying that is missed even in the state ordinance. That only covers threats of physical harm or harm to property.
“You can be mean and nasty without swearing, without threatening to hurt anyone, but this gets an area of the law that is deemed missed, which is the most common form of cyber-bullying that we have out there,” Ward said.
Ward said the Bully Project is working on alternatives to the fine to include education and training.
Brault said that while he sympathized with the victims of bullying, the ordinance itself flies in the face of the first amendment
“The first amendment is extremely clear. It says ‘no laws.’ …It doesn’t say some, and in these cases it’s OK, and these exceptions…it’s very specific,” Brault said.
Hynek said the ordinance would put the county board in charge of raising the children of Vernon County. That’s the job of the parents and the schools.
“I’m not going to say it’s all bad, but we have to be real careful what you say here because you get people that are very good with the legal language; they will put you in a bad position on the county board by making a bad ordinance,” Hynek said.
County board supervisor and legal affairs committee chair Kevin Gobel said the county was approached by school district administrators and lawyers with the Vernon County Bar to adopt this kind of ordinance. Gobel said Lunde looked the ordinance over. The district attorney looked the ordinance over.
“We can’t go back to the old-school way – we talked about that in committee – so it isn’t something the county board dreamt up. It’s what professionals asked us to do,” Gobel said.
Subera commented whether people had use of a delete button.
“Apparently these people don’t have delete buttons on their computers and cell phones…if somebody wants to get annoying on the phone, I hang up on them,” Subera said. “I think we have to teach our kids this is part of the world of adulthood.”
County board supervisor Shawn Redington said that it’s not so simple, especially with Twitter, Facebook and texting.
“I’m not just picking on one individual, I’m picking on all their friends and that individual doesn’t know about it,” Redington said. “And that’s where the problem comes in because then as a parent you don’t know who it is your kid is being picked on and that’s where I think this is a good ordinance.”
Ward also addressed Subera’s “delete button” comment.
“Hitting the delete button doesn’t work anymore,” Ward said. “If it was just e-mail, yeah, maybe, but once something is posted on Facebook, it’s there forever.”
Spears said the nature of bullying has changed.
“When I grew up the bullying was different. If you got bullied it was usually physical or it was words to your face or to your friends. You knew about it right there; you knew who it was,” Spears said. “This isn’t today. You can mask this stuff on the computer or on your phone. They don’t know where it’s coming from.”
While the theory of an ordinance addressing electronic messages is not new in Vernon County, due to the city of Viroqua’s ordinance, some media outlets in the last week have given the county board’s action attention. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism did a story on Vernon County’s ordinance last weekend. On Monday it was reported that the American Civil Liberties Union believes the language in the ordinance is overly broad.