WI State Supreme Court Allows Government to Obtain “Harassment Injunction” Against Protester
Recognizes injunctions must be clear and narrow when speech involved.
MADISON, WI – The Wisconsin State Supreme Court today issued a ruling in Board of Regents v. Decker, holding that “injunctive protections [extend] to institutions as well as natural persons” and that protest activity could be “harassing” under some circumstances. However, the Court sent the case back to the trial judge to narrow the scope of the injunction, which was vague and overbroad, and two concurring justices recognized the poor fit of the statute when invoked by the government. Justice Prosser suggested that “the legislature review the language and effectiveness of all the specialized statutes on injunctions and restraining orders . . . and consider adopting a new statute for ‘persons’ who are not people.”
The UW Board of Regents sought and obtained from Dane County Circuit Court a harassment injunction against Jeffrey Decker, a former student at UW-Stevens Point who engaged in sometimes distracting and boisterous protests of UW policy regarding use of student fees and his treatment by the UW system. The injunction ordered Decker to avoid harassing “the UW or any of its representatives,” avoid premises occupied by the UW system (even temporarily for meetings) and refrain from contacting the Board or “its representatives.” Violation of a harassment injunction subjects Decker to arrest and a fine of up to $10,000 and imprisonment of up to 90 days.
“We are disturbed by the Court’s decision to allow a governmental entity, such as the UW System, to get an injunction against a protester,” said Larry Dupuis, Legal Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “The government has many other means of protecting itself than the typical person victimized by harassment. The UW has its own police force. Restraining orders that purport to silence ‘harassing’ speech always raise first amendment concerns, but especially when the ‘person’ claiming harassment is the government itself. We agree with Justice Prosser that the legislature should review these statutes and urge lawmakers to clarify that the government can’t claim to be a ‘person’ under them.”
Attorneys James Friedman and Dustin Brown of the law firm Godfrey & Kahn submitted an amicus brief and participated in oral argument on behalf of the ACLU of Wisconsin. Decker was represented by Attorney Gary Grass.
The ACLU of Wisconsin has approximately 6,000 members who support its efforts to defend the civil liberties and civil rights of all Wisconsin residents. For more on the work of the ACLU of Wisconsin, visit our webpage. Find us on Facebook and Twitter at ACLUMadison and ACLUofWisconsin.