Now There’s a Speech Restriction for You

A new Vernon County, Wisconsin ordinance provides a $50 to $500 fine — or, if the fine isn’t paid, up to 30 days in jail — for

send[ing] information to another person by electronic means with the intent to annoy, offend, demean, ridicule, degrade, belittle, disparage, or humiliate any person

if the information “serves no legitimate purpose,” whatever that means. (A city ordinance in the Vernon County seat, Viroqua provides the same, but requires “repeatedly send[ing] information”; the Vernon County ordinance omits the “repeatedly.”)

This isn’t limited to offensive e-mail sent to a particular person that’s intended to offend that person. If you post a message about me on your Facebook page with the intent to annoy, offend, demean, ridicule, degrade, belittle, disparage, or humiliate me, that would be covered — if it “serves no legitimate purpose” — since you’re sending information “to another person” (any reader of the Facebook page) intended to annoy etc. “any person” (me). Indeed, a lawyer who spoke in favor of the law at the hearing at which it was enacted specifically stressed that the law would cover Facebook.

Likewise, if you just send an e-mail to a friend ridiculing or disparaging me, that personal e-mail is a crime, if it “serves no legitimate purpose.” What constitutes a “legitimate purpose” is never explained. Is venting about a friend who you think has betrayed you a “legitimate purpose”? Is telling a friend about an enemy’s faux pas? What about posting Mohammed cartoons, or a video of a burning Koran? Neither the ordinance nor, to my knowledge, Wisconsin caselaw defines what “legitimate purpose” would mean in this context.

Vernon County is in the Western District of Wisconsin, the district in which Madison, Wisconsin is located. I would think that challenging the ordinance would be an interesting and educational project for some University of Wisconsin law students, together with a Wisconsin law professor or lawyer, and with some public-spirited Vernonian citizen to serve as plaintiff.

Thanks to Ken (Popehat) for pointing this out, and to Jonathan Adler for blogging a link to Ken’s post; but I thought it worthwhile to discuss this in more detail.