Law & the Courts

A Wisconsin City Bans Throwing Snowballs on Public Property — and That’s Stupid

People use a slingshot during a snowball fight on Boston Common during a winter nor’easter snow storm in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. February 9, 2017. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
If any government has a rule that would legally allow it to punish people for things that don’t deserve punishment, then that law should be scrapped or changed.

The Wisconsin city of Wausau has a law banning people from throwing snowballs on public property — saying that a snowball counts as a “missile”:

No person shall throw or shoot any object, arrow, stone, snowball or other missile or projectile, by hand or by any other means, at any other person or at, in or into any building, street, sidewalk, alley, highway, park, playground or other public place within the city . . .

According to Newsweek, the controversial ordinance was actually “introduced several years ago” in response to problems with people who were throwing things at public property — and there are reportedly six other municipalities in the state that have similar rules. Still, Wausau’s specific ordinance has started to make headlines this week because a local news source, WSAW, highlighted it in a recent piece.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of the response to the publicity has been backlash. In response, Deputy Chief Matt Barnes and Mayor Robert Mielke made a video trying to explain it. In the video, police officers in the background throw snowballs at each other while Barnes explains to the camera that the ordinance is not new, that it’s needed for citizens’ “safety,” and that the city’s police have not used and do not use it to issue citations to people who are innocently engaging in some lighthearted, consensual, snowball-throwing fun.

All of that is, of course, good news. If it were true that Wausau’s cops were, say, stopping and citing kids who were just having a little bit of winter fun on their walks home from school (as some people may have thought was the case), then that would obviously have been a draconian disaster.

Now, the city government clearly released that video in an attempt to convince people that there is nothing wrong with the city’s ordinance and that everyone who’s had an issue with it is just misinformed about the facts.

Guess what, though? They’re wrong.

See — I did watch their video; I do know all of the facts, and guess what? I still have an issue with this rule.

It’s true: Whenever I see a government rule that could clearly be used to punish people for doing innocuous things, it is never enough for some government official to just assure me that it won’t be used that way. Those assurances, after all, aren’t binding; they’re lip service.

Still, governments do this all the time. Just last month, I wrote about a New York county legislator who tried to defend her own stupid, potential-vehicle-for-overreach bill (one that could jail people if they “annoy” police officers) in a similar way. At the time, I explained that the legislator’s empty words were not sufficient to quell my concerns — and now, Barnes’s here aren’t either. I don’t care too much about some non-binding video that says people won’t get into legal trouble for throwing snowballs — because the ordinance itself still allows for it, and that alone is worth calling out.

The bottom line is: If any government has a rule that would legally allow it to punish people for things that don’t deserve punishment, then that law should be scrapped or changed. Clearly, this Wausau ordinance (which groups a snowball and a missile together in the same regulatory category) is one of those instances. Is this local snowball issue in itself really a huge deal? No, of course not, but this whole thing is really more about a larger principle: As citizens, we must demand that our governments do not get away with having laws or codes on the books that would allow them to interfere with the freedoms that we deserve — whether they tell us that they won’t be used that way or not.

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