MADISON (AP) – A frequent University of Wisconsin System protester’s antics clearly crossed the line into harassment but an injunction banning him from UW property or contacting UW personnel is too broad and must be rewritten, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The court ruled unanimously that the injunction against former UW-Stevens Point student Jeff Decker is reasonable because he has repeatedly disrupted campus meetings, trespassed on UW property and tried to purchase a gun after police tried to serve him with a temporary restraining order.
“Whatever Decker’s message is, it is completely overshadowed by his tactics, which have crossed the line and become unreasonable … something had to be done,” Justice David Prosser wrote in a concurring opinion.
But the justices agreed with Decker that it is unclear whether the injunction bans him from interacting with tens of thousands of UW employees and students and what property he is barred from entering. Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson questioned in her concurring opinion whether Decker can see a UW doctor, attend a UW play or visit a friend in a UW dorm.
UW System spokesman John Diamond praised the ruling, saying it explains why the university had to get the injunction.
Decker’s attorney, Gary Grass, said the ruling would help Decker defend himself against criminal charges he faces for venturing onto campuses in spite of the injunction. In a broader sense, it will make it easier to win restraining orders against people who bother others by exercising their free speech rights.
“The legitimate purpose won’t shield them,” Grass said.
Decker, the son of former state Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, believes UW officials illegally block students from accessing millions of dollars of their own fees. He has tried to embarrass the system over the issue for years, marching around campus in a mechanical dragon costume and printing trading cards likening UW leaders to “Star Wars” villains.
According to the Supreme Court opinion, Decker got upset over fees during a 2010 meeting with the chancellor, swearing at him and stabbing a stack of papers with a pen. A disciplinary committee suspended Decker, thus automatically barring him from campus. Nonetheless, he returned at least four times. Police removed him from UW-Fox Valley twice and a regents meeting in Madison.
The regents asked Dane County Circuit Judge John Markson for a temporary restraining order against Decker in October 2011. Decker immediately tried to purchase a gun after the UW-Oshkosh Police chief served him with the paperwork, according to the Supreme Court opinion.
Markson granted the injunction against Decker that month, ruling that his conduct and trespassing was meant to intimidate and harass and lacked any legitimate purpose. Markson said he was worried Decker might shoot someone given the timing of his attempt to buy a gun. The injunction required Decker to stop contacting the university and its representatives and prohibited him from possessing a gun until the injunction expires in 2015.
A state appeals court struck the injunction down last year, finding that Decker was exercising his constitutional right to protest.
The Supreme Court, though, ruled the injunction reasonable. Justice Michael Gableman wrote in the majority opinion that ample evidence existed for Markson to find that Decker’s actions lacked any legitimate purpose.
“Decker cannot shield his harassing conduct from regulation by labeling it ‘protest.’ If Decker’s purpose was even in part to harass the Board of Regents, his conduct may be enjoined,” Gableman wrote.
Decker knew he wasn’t allowed on UW property but trespassed anyway and he tried to buy a gun immediately after police visited his home, Gableman pointed out.
“The risk to public safety, combined with Decker’s pattern of trespassing and his deliberate disruption of university meetings, provides abundant support for the circuit court’s decision to issue the harassment injunction,” Gableman wrote.
The court rejected Decker’s argument that the regents can’t get an injunction against him because they constitute an institution. Gableman said institutions can be threatened just like individuals and that the definition of a person in state law includes political bodies or corporations.