Bill to add penalties for harassing lawmakers

Public reaction to union law sparks latest measure

Apr. 28, 2013


MADISON — A Wisconsin lawmaker is pushing for tougher laws to deter people who would intimidate or harm members of the Legislature and their families.

Under legislation introduced by Rep. Garey Bies, a Republican from Sister Bay, acts such as striking, shoving, or kicking a lawmaker or a family member with no legitimate reason would face harsher penalties.

Bies said harassment of lawmakers is a longstanding issue but has worsened since Gov. Scott Walker signed a law in 2011 that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers. Opponents of that measure “would stand in your face and bump into you,” Bies said. “They chased you down the hallway and all the way to the office.”

Bies said he has personal experience. During that tumultuous period, he said he got enough derogatory calls at home that he got caller ID. The restroom of his restaurant was vandalized twice within two weeks during September 2011, which he attributed to his status as a legislator.

Under current law, people who intentionally harm a public official can be convicted of a Class I felony, punishable by up to 31/2 years in prison. Bies’ legislation would create a Class A misdemeanor — punishable by up to nine months in prison — for acts of repeated intimidation or use of force to influence a lawmaker’s action, or for lingering within 100 yards of his or her private property.

Acts that cause a lawmaker or family member’s fear of death would be a Class H felony, meaning up to six years in prison.

Bies said he supports freedom of speech, but there’s a line people shouldn’t cross when they disagree.

Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, and Rep. Samantha Kerkman, R-Randall, are co-sponsoring the proposal.

In her decade at the Legislature, Taylor said she has been disgusted and disheartened to be the target of offensive emails, postcards, Facebook posts, and broken windows at her house.

A piece of mail containing human feces was delivered to her Capitol office last session during debates over changes to state mining regulations. The envelope was labeled “Milwaukee trade union want the iron mine,” possibly referring to Taylor’s vote against the measure.

“How could that be a form of free speech?” Taylor asked.

Kerkman said a person threw firecrackers at her Kenosha home in 2010 and drove away. Others would honk outside the house in the middle of the night. Kerkman said the family has filed three police reports in the last two years.

Madison police last year cited a Racine man who they said was involved in dumping a glass of beer on the head of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. The suspect’s motive was unclear. Vos and many other Republicans were targeted by protesters last session for his support of Walker’s collective bargaining law.

At least 26 states have statutes specifically covering threats to lawmakers or public officials, said Kae Warnock, a policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Opponents of the legislation called it redundant and said it could ultimately infringe on free speech.

“This bill is a solution in search of a problem,” Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin said in a statement. “We would have no objection covering immediate families, but even since 2011, instances of harassment have been few, and it’s unclear why such incidents wouldn’t already be covered by an existing law.”

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