Wisconsin Republicans’ ‘riot bill’ endangers free speech

No matter our background, zip code or race, most Wisconsinites understand that free speech is crucial for a well-functioning democracy.

Our society, and our faith communities, have a long tradition of speaking truth to power. Sometimes that truth is uncomfortable. Sometimes that truth is disruptive. Sometimes that truth is scary. But we have to be able to speak our truth in the public square.

The First Amendment guarantees us the right to free speech and the “right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  

Unfortunately, Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature are pushing a bill to frustrate this right and to make people think twice or three times before they dare to exercise it. The proposed legislation (AB 70/SB 96)  has already passed in the Assembly, and it awaits a hearing and then a floor vote in the state Senate.

It’s a bill we don’t need.

It won’t make us any safer.

It’s vague and overbroad.

And it’ll likely be enforced in a discriminatory way against Wisconsinites advocating for racial justice.

The bill defines a “riot” as “an act of violence” or “a threat of the commission of an act of violence” at a gathering of three or more persons.

And it would charge with a felony anyone who “intentionally commits an act of violence while participating in a riot” or “whoever intentionally incites another to commit a riot.”

So, under this definition, a “riot,” as defined by this bill, could be a demonstration where no violence whatsoever occurred. It could just be a gathering where someone said something that could be construed as a threat of violence. That’s absurd. That contradicts the generally accepted definition of a riot. Merriam-Webster’s first definition of “riot,” for instance, is “a violent public disorder.”

And even in the section of the bill where it defines “an act of violence,” the language is unclear. Because it defines “an act of violence” as something “that results in or constitutes a clear and present danger of damage to the property of any other person or injury to another person.”

Well, which is it?

If it results in damage or injury, obviously it’s violence. But if it only “constitutes a clear and present danger” of damage or injury, it’s not yet violence. And how do you define “clear and present danger?” That’s a slippery slope.

Even if you were to strike the “clear and present danger” language and just outlaw actual damage to property or violence against a person, this part of the bill is still unnecessary. Because acts of violence are already crimes under Wisconsin’s statutes!

Violence against an individual is already a crime.

Damage to property is already a crime.

Arson is already a crime. 

We don’t need more penalties for the same crimes that we have on the books. You shouldn’t be able to throw the book extra hard at people just because they are demonstrating.

The second part of the bill, about “incitement,” is equally troublesome. It would penalize anyone who” intentionally incites” someone to “commit a riot,” but again the language is vague and overbroad.

“Committing a riot” is a weird expression, for one thing. In everyday speech, a riot is not something you commit; it’s something that occurs.

And since one way the bill defines a riot as occurring is when there is just “a threat of the commission of an act of violence,” you could be guilty of a felony for intentionally inciting someone to issue a threat of violence.

And they define “intentionally incites” really loosely. It could mean just “encourage,” and they don’t define “encourage.”

Putting these vague terms together, you could encourage someone to go to a rally and to quote Malcolm X saying we need to oppose racial oppression “by any means necessary,” and then, under this bill, you might be guilty of a felony. Or if you were a speechwriter for a public figure, and you ghost-wrote that Malcolm X line in the speech, under this bill, you might be guilty of a felony.

A prosecutor could say you were encouraging someone to threaten violence, so you meet the definitions under this bill and you should be charged with a Class I Felony and face three and a half years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

This bill is so vague and so broad and so unnecessary and so punitive.

And my fear is it would disproportionately be applied to those who are demanding racial justice.

The history of this country demonstrates that the law comes down heaviest on those who protest for racial equality.

It’s not the rowdy white frat boys on Langdon Street who will be picked up for felony riot after a Badger football game but the Black activists who are protesting against police brutality.

As Rep. LaKeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee) recently noted in an op-ed in the Wisconsin State Journal, the people who are most likely to be prosecuted are “the people whose lives are almost always at the heart of the protests. People who inherently carry the burden of fighting for their very existence.”

She added: “Instead of creating new ways to stifle citizen outcry, we need to begin doing the real work to make our society more equitable and just.”

I couldn’t agree with her more.



originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F04%2F17%2Fwisconsin-republicans-riot-bill-endangers-free-speech%2F by Matt Rothschild

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