Republican lawmakers propose amendments to increase penalties for protestThe Badger Herald
Republican lawmakers have proposed amendments to Bill 296 that would make it a crime to attend a protest that turns violent.
The invoice defines a riot as “a public disturbance involving an illegal assembly ”and an act or threat of violence or destruction of property.
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The bill sets out specific penalties for the commission of these acts. According to the provisions on penalties at the end of the bill, a person who knowingly participates in a riot which results in “substantial damage to the property of another person or bodily harm to another person” is guilty of a Class I offense crime.
The crime would carry a minimum sentence of 45 days in prison and a maximum penalty of a fine of $ 10,000 and up to three and a half years in prison. Inciting or witnessing a riot and blocking a road would constitute an offense under the bill, punishable by a minimum sentence of at least 30 days in prison and a maximum sentence of up to ‘to $ 10,000 in fines and 9 months in prison.
Sponsors said the bill hopes to reduce incidents similar to the violence last summer which erupted in Kenosha following the police shooting against Jacob Blake.
Kathleen Culver, a University of Wisconsin First Amendment and free speech specialist, said there are a small number of restricted categories of speech that are not protected by the First Amendment. One of these categories is actual threats, which by law include threats against an individual that are intended to cause that individual to fear for their safety, health or life.
“What’s interesting here is that the part that talks about a clear and present threat and danger refers to threats against bodily injury and property damage,” Culver said. “Real threats are considered to be outside the bounds of First Amendment protection. … So extending that to property damage could run the risk of this law going against the First Amendment.
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Culver explained that the bill collides with a constitutionally protected right to assemble and seek redress for grievances because the law could punish people for what has been protected by case law.
Such a bill could have a chilling effect, Culver said. The term refers to the natural tendency of people to censor themselves when they fear legal implications will occur, even though the speech is actually protected.
“When you talk about violence that would damage property and also hurt people, you are generally talking about incitement to violence,” Culver said. “So extending bodily injury only to property damage could pose a constitutional problem for them. “
State Senator Kelda Roys, D-Madison, said the bill would negatively affect freedom of speech and the right to protest. Roys has raised concerns about how the bill might open the door for government or police action against groups they disagree with.
She said the penalties provided for in the bill would exacerbate the problem of civil rights protesters being unfairly treated by law enforcement. Roys drew a comparison between police biases towards some protesters, pointing to the harsher response to Black Lives Matter protesters as opposed to the law enforcement response during the siege of the Capitol on January 6.
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Roys said she was also frustrated with Bill’s definition of a riot.
“Basically it’s three or more people gathered in a certain area with violence or threat of violence or destruction of property or threat of destruction of property,” Roys said.
She said this description could involve people who were not involved in the riot, such as passers-by, journalists or peaceful protesters.
Roys said she was concerned this bill would give the government the power to find someone guilty of someone else’s actions.
“We really have to be careful not to criminalize people who are in the wrong place,” Roys said.
In a public hearing in September, Senator Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, said the proposal “responds to the growing popularity of the riots,” according to WPR.
Wanggard, who is a sponsor of the bill and a former police officer, has drafted similar legislation in the past and argued that this was a necessary step in light of the destruction caused by the protests of last summer.
“As a result of the recent disruptions both in our state and across the country, it is important to focus on public safety and to hold those responsible to account,” Wanggaard said during the hearing.
Several other supporters of the bill include the Badger State Sheriffs’ Association, the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, and the Wisconsin Sheriffs and Sheriffs Deputy Association.
Roys said there were bipartisan concerns about the bill, with conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity coming down against the bill because it “Could be inappropriately applied by government officials in a partisan or one-sided manner manner.”
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Lawmakers who proposed the bill specifically target certain groups of people, Roys said. His position is that the bill is not practically necessary, because the aggressive behavior described in the bill is already illegal.
Roys does not think the bill will actually pass. Corn Roys thinks it’s possible for it to be passed by the legislature, but doesn’t believe Gov. Tony Evers would allow it to pass.