(New York)– In advance of a Tuesday vote in the Wisconsin Legislature, PEN America warned that a pending bill could gravely endanger the right to protest. SB 296/AB 279 would define “riot” so broadly that anyone present at a protest where violence occurs, even if they did not participate in such acts, could face felony charges punishable by up to three-and-a-half years imprisonment. It would impose additional misdemeanor penalties for anyone who obstructs traffic during a riot or “incites or urges” groups of people to participate in a riot, with no definition for what constitutes incitement or urging.

“Wisconsin legislators should reject this bill, which makes it too easy for police to declare a protest as a riot and to treat participants in the protest as criminals,” said James Tager, research director at PEN America. “Elected officials should be defending the right to protest across the board, not dreaming up new ways to criminalize protest and protesters.”

The bill is part of a much larger trend of anti-protest legislation introduced in reaction to Black Lives Matter demonstrations. PEN America released a report, Closing Ranks: State Legislators Deepen Assaults on the Right to Protest, in May 2021, tracking the flood of anti-protest legislation in the year after the murder of George Floyd. This followed the 2020 report Arresting Dissent: Legislative Restrictions on the Right to Protest, which documented such bills introduced from 2015 to 2019. In both reports, PEN America explains how these bills are best understood as attempts to restrict protest-related conduct and expression.

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org

CONTACT: Suzanne Trimel, STrimel@PEN.org