Aug. 19, 2014 – Institutions are protected under Wisconsin’s harassment injunction statute, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled, denying Jeffrey Decker’s claim that only natural persons can seek injunctions to stop harassment by an individual.
In U.W. Board of Regents v. Decker, 2014 WI 68 (July 16, 2014), a majority of the court ruled that institutions can be protected under the harassment statute. However, the court remanded the case, concluding that the injunction against Decker was overbroad.
Decker is a former student at U.W. Stevens Point. In 2010, he met with the school’s Chancellor to discuss student fees. Decker became agitated during the conversation and allegedly stabbed a stack of papers with a pen before police were called to remove him.
Ultimately, a disciplinary committee suspended Decker for disorderly conduct. The suspension lasted for a period of 13 months, during which time Decker was prohibited from entering any U.W. System campus without permission. Decker told the committee that he did not intend to comply with the suspension, and he didn’t.
Decker attended a U.W.-Oshkosh basketball game in 2011 and passed out literature to students without permission. He went to a U.W.-Fox Valley meeting involving student government and the Chancellor there and disrupted the meeting, allegedly complaining of his suspension and student fees before the meeting ended and reconvened elsewhere.
Before leaving U.W.-Fox Valley, he attended another meeting before police removed him. A week later, he entered the Board of Regents meeting at U.W.-Madison. He started videotaping and photographing the meeting before he was arrested.
Charges for criminal trespass were later dismissed. Then he was back at U.W.-Fox Valley, where he crashed a Board of Trustees meeting and passed out literature, again complaining of his suspension. Police arrested him on charges of disorderly conduct.
Soon thereafter, the U.W. Board of Regents petitioned for a temporary restraining order against Decker, naming the U.W. System as the protected party. A judge for the Dane County Circuit Court granted the temporary injunction.
Immediately after Decker dodged a police officer who was attempting to serve him with the temporary restraining order papers, a handgun hotline reported that Decker attempted to purchase a handgun. Ultimately, an injunction was granted. The circuit court judge said the U.W. System’s Board of Regents was entitled to protection.
Decker was ordered to stop his communication with the Board of Regents, which governs the U.W. System, and stay away from any property occupied by the Board of Regents. He was also prohibited from possessing a firearm during the injunction.
The appeals court reversed. It said that Decker’s right to publicly protest student fees was constitutionally protected. The supreme court unanimously disagreed.
Under Wis. Stat. section 813.125(3), circuit courts can grant injunctions in the form of restraining orders if there’s “reasonable grounds to believe that the respondent has engaged in harassment with intent to harass or intimidate the petitioner.”
Harassment includes “engaging in a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts which harass or intimidate another person and which serve no legitimate purpose.”
Decker argued that harassment injunctions cannot be granted to protect institutions, and his actions had a legitimate purpose: to protest the Board of Regent’s activities. He also argued that the injunction imposed against him was overbroad and vague.
On the first point, Decker said institutions could not be harassed, because institutions don’t have the capacity to experience mental agitation, grief, anxiety or fear – he said the harassment statute contemplates protection from physical and mental harms.
The Board of Regents noted that Wisconsin statutes define a “person” as including corporate and political bodies, and the Board of Regents is both. The supreme court agreed with the Board of Regents, rejecting Decker’s arguments on this point.
“[A]n institution is nothing more than collection of individuals engaged in a common purpose,” wrote Justice Michael Gableman. “An institution, as well as an individual, can be the subject of threats and intimidation, which is why protests and picket rallies are often organized outside of an institution’s headquarters.”
The supreme court also rejected the argument that criminal charges must be filed before a harassment injunction can be pursued. The court noted that the Board of Regents did pursue a criminal remedy first, and Decker was not deterred.
“A harassment injunction may not prevent a tragedy such as the atrocious shooting at Virginia Tech or Sandy Hook, but it is nevertheless an important and effective tool for university officials to maintain order and ensure student health and safety,” Justice Gableman wrote.
The supreme court also ruled that Decker’s contact with the U.W. System was meant to harass and served no legitimate purpose, despite the argument that he was protesting fees and had a First Amendment right to protest on public campuses.
“Decker’s right to protest on UW property can be restricted when he engages in harassment with the intent to harass or intimidate,” Justice Gableman wrote.
Finally, Decker argued that the injunction was overbroad as potentially forbidding contact with the university’s 40,000 employees and 181,000 students. The Board of Regents conceded that the injunction could be construed as overbroad.
“Because the parties both concede that the injunction is overbroad, we need not address this issue,” Gableman wrote. “Rather, we remand to the circuit court to refine the injunction. The court directed the injunction to be more specific.
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote a concurring opinion, counseling circuit courts to “exercise caution in crafting harassment injunctions to protect non-individual persons,” noting a number of requirements that such injunctions must include.
Justice David Prosser also wrote a concurring opinion. He agreed with the majority opinion but wrote separately to register a concern that the state’s harassment statute “was never intended to cover institutions as well as natural persons.”
Prosser points out that if the institution can be a victim, it could also be a perpetrator.
“I am confident that many people believe some institution, association, or body politic or corporate is engaging in a course of conduct to harass or intimidate them in a manner that serves no legitimate purpose,” Justice Prosser wrote.
He suggested the legislature revisit the statutes on injunctions and restraining orders and consider the adoption of new law for persons who are not natural persons.