Vernon County enacts electronic messaging ordinance

2012-11-14T09:55:00Z Vernon County enacts electronic messaging ordinanceby Jennifer Wieman, La Crosse Tribune

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.

Copyright 2015 La Crosse Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(11) Comments

  1. JoePullen
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    JoePullen - December 14, 2012 10:03 am
    @Kim Ward

    “and it basically comes down to the fact that hate speech is not protected speech, never has been and never will be”

    Really? Perhaps you could point me to some Federal law or statute that says otherwise or that moreover supports your silly ordinance that states “Whoever sends information to another person by electronic means with the intent to annoy, offend, demean, ridicule, degrade, belittle, disparage, or humiliate any person and which serves no legitimate purpose shall be required to forfeit not less than $50.00 nor more than $500 together with the cost of prosecution and in default of payment shall be sentenced to the County Jail until such forfeiture and costs are paid, not exceeding 30 days.”

    “No legitimate purpose” Exactly what is that supposed to mean? Annoy? Offend? Really? Since when is that against the law? Hint – it’s not.

    I hate bullying as much as the next person but that’s no excuse for attempting to pass bad laws.
  2. Glode
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    Glode - December 13, 2012 9:56 pm
    What kind of law school accepts, let alone graduates, people who don't know the difference between "its" and "it's"?
  3. bja009
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    bja009 - December 13, 2012 12:29 pm
    Interesting to note: Hate speech is, in fact, protected speech. See: R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377.
    You folks need some new lawyers.
    And I feel compelled to point out that your little ordinance is unjust, and your quote therefore doesn't apply.
  4. Gambrinus
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    Gambrinus - November 19, 2012 11:47 pm
    Kim, You are at odds with the ACLU. "Stacy Harbaugh of the state’s ACLU says the language appears to be overly broad. And she tells the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism that it can be abused in its application.

    The ACLU’s Harbaugh said there’s a difference between making threats and expressing opinions – and opinions can be legally expressed, “no matter how obnoxious it may be.”

    Also, I notice that you are not weighing in on the Constitutional adage that "Congress shall make NO LAW... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press". Are you suggesting that J.A. Foude's cliche trumps the First Amendment or rather that "No law" actually means "some just laws"?
  5. Gambrinus
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    Gambrinus - November 19, 2012 11:25 pm
    Actually you can but you would probably be arrested under existing laws such as disturbing the peace or be sued by the owner of the theater or its customers for the injuries and damages such behavior produces. Again, this law is redundant and only adds to the power of the state and would be thugs to to arbitrarily intimidate and bully the populace. This law also has the potential to enrich lawyers trying to determine things like "intent" and "legitimate purpose".
  6. Here comes the boom
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    Here comes the boom - November 18, 2012 7:39 pm
    But you still can't yell FIRE in a theater, or stand outside the school and curse the children as they leave!
  7. Dennis Brault
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    Dennis Brault - November 16, 2012 5:30 pm
    KimWard writes, "I understand that freedom of speech is important but so is the right to live free of fear."

    In Whitney v. California (1927) Justice Brandeis writes, "fear of serious injury alone cannot justify suppression of free speech", but that such an action can only be performed if there exists a "reasonable" basis on which to conclude that the speech will lead to actual violence.""

    ie. presents a clear and present danger.

    Bachellar v. Maryland (1970): “It is firmly settled that under our Constitution the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers”

    In SMITH v. COLLIN (1978) Justice BLACKMUN writes, "I also feel that the present case affords the Court an opportunity to consider whether, in the context of the facts that this record appears to present, there is no limit whatsoever to the exercise of free speech."

    Like in "NO LAW abridging the freedom of speech". Help us find a better way.
  8. Dennis Brault
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    Dennis Brault - November 16, 2012 5:17 pm
    Gambrinus - Writes:

    ""reminder: First Amendment
    "Congress shall make NO LAW... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press"

    If Congress can't, perhaps Kim Ward would like to explain how the Vernon County Board can.""

    The Vernon County Board can't legally act to abridge First Amendment rights according to the 14th Amendment - "Citizenship Rights":

    ""1. ..No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States...""

  9. KimWard
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    KimWard - November 15, 2012 10:29 am
    This all was discussed with the county board and it's legal affairs committee in minute detail over several months and it basically comes down to the fact that hate speech is not protected speech, never has been and never will be. The suggestion of this ordinance was brought to the attention of the Vernon County Bully Project by a local school official and law enforcement, given the growing concern of cyberbullying, felt they needed a tool to help combat this problem. I understand that freedom of speech is important but so is the right to live free of fear. If you are interested in this ordinance and the problem of cyberbullying please attend the next meeting of the Vernon County Bully Project, 11/27/12 at noon at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve.
    Please keep in mind the following:
    "Just laws are no restraint upon the freedom of the good for the good man desires nothing which a just law will interfere with." J.A. Foude, This quote is painted on the Vernon County Courtroom wall . . .
  10. Gambrinus
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    Gambrinus - November 15, 2012 12:08 am
    Wisconsin already has libel laws and a law requiring all schools to have bullying policies. This law is therefore redundant.

    The way this is written, the editor of the Broadcaster can be incarcerated if anyone feels annoyed and thinks that a barb was aimed at them... even if true. Lawyers must be pushing this. The possibilities of complicated lawsuits involving intent are endless. The advocates of this censorship bill suggest that only the sheriff or DA will prosecute but the law does not limit who can use this law for intimidation or as a club to bully their opposition. You better not make a claim that some government official is doing something illegal on a forum like this or you may be fined and jailed.

    reminder: First Amendment
    "Congress shall make NO LAW... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press"

    If Congress can't, perhaps Kim Ward would like to explain how the Vernon County Board can.

  11. perkred
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    perkred - November 14, 2012 10:17 am
    Just what we need--more laws
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