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A handful of Wisconsin cities have identically worded ordinances that ban snowball fights in public places. After going viral for their policy, officials in Wausau are ready to change it.
Deep in the municipal code of Wausau, Wisconsin, under a section titled, “Peace, Safety and Morals,” in a subsection that prohibits the “throwing or shooting of arrows, stones and other missiles,” sits a ban on snowballs.
Specifically, the ordinance prevents people from throwing or shooting “any object, arrow, stone, snowball or other missile or projectile, by hand or by any other means,” at, in or into public property within city limits. The ordinance has been on the books since at least 1962, and city officials aren’t sure exactly what inspired its passage, but they know it’s there—not because it’s regularly (or ever) enforced, but because every few years, its existence makes headlines.
“It comes up in the context of, ‘Oh my gosh, why does Wausau hate snowball fights?’ It’s not that. It’s just been there for a long time. Our police certainly don’t go roaming the streets looking for people engaging in snowball fights, hoping to issue a ticket,” said Lisa Rasmussen, president of the Wausau City Council. “This is at least the third time I’ve had this conversation since 2008.”
It started this year on local news, then spread nationwide. City officials fielded calls and emails from outlets as far away as New York. Employees in the city attorney’s office scrambled to research the origin of the ordinance and worked with the police department to verify whether anyone had ever been charged or prosecuted for violating the policy. By Thursday, workers in the mayor’s office were receiving obscene emails and phone calls from people—none from Wausau—who couldn’t believe that a snowy Midwestern town would prevent kids from having snowball fights.
“We got awful, vulgar calls,” said Kathi Groeschel, administrative assistant for Wausau Mayor Rob Mielke. “People were swearing at us. A couple just left messages. I told one angry man, ‘Sir, I want you to understand that this ordinance was drafted back in 1962.’ And then he hung up on me.”
The purpose of the ordinance is public safety, according to Wausau City Attorney Anne Jacobson, who noted that “a snowball is merely one in a long list of items that are described as projectiles.”
“We’re not making fun illegal, or throwing snowballs in your backyard illegal,” she said. “We’re saying that you may get a civil forfeiture if you are ever cited for and convicted of throwing a projectile at a person in a public space.”
Offenders could face a fine of $124, including a $50 deposit and mandatory court costs. But in 57 years, police have issued just one citation under the ordinance, in a case that had nothing whatsoever to do with snow.
“There was an incident where somebody shot at somebody else with a bow and arrow and it crossed public property,” Jacobson said. “We don’t know if they were ever convicted.”
Wausau is one of at least seven cities in Wisconsin with identically worded bans on snowball fights in public places. Two of them—Weston and Rib Mountain—did not return requests for comment. Officials in Marshfield were unaware that the city had a snowball ordinance. No one had ever been punished for throwing snowballs in Schofield (“Are you really calling about this?” asked a police officer) or in Merrill, though City Attorney Tom Hayden said that the policy made sense, at least from a safety standpoint.
“You’re not supposed to throw stuff at people, including snowballs,” he said. “That’s probably a good idea.”
Police have also not cracked down on snowball fights in Antigo, according to Mark A. Desotell, the city’s director of administrative services.
“I can assure you that our officers do not have any recollection of utilizing the ordinance to stop a ‘backyard’ type of snowball melee,” he said in an email. “I could only speculate as to why the ‘snowball’ language was instituted in the first place. Admittedly, I was once young and may have needed such guidance myself regarding the proper use of a ‘snowball.’”
The origin of Wausau’s ordinance is similarly murky. Purportedly, someone once got hit in the face with a rock masquerading as a snowball, though officials believe that theory is apocryphal.
Given its dubious necessity, and the lack of enforcement in the past six decades, Rasmussen would like to do away with the snowball provision entirely. In an email to city officials Thursday, she proposed amending the ordinance at the next meeting of the city’s Public Health and Safety Committee, where she serves as chairwoman.
“I think this issue gets fixed by removing the word ‘snowball’ from the examples, and presuming that use of the words that remain, including ‘projectile,’ will allow decent prosecution if there are issues with people throwing ice chunks or something of the frozen variety,” she wrote. “I’m willing to fix it with a simple amendment...so we don’t have to deal with this every winter. This is the third time we have had a story like this since I have been on the council. Makes us look a little crazy, like the lemonade stand controversy in other areas, etc.”
If the committee approves the change—Rasmussen doesn’t foresee any objections—the measure would go to the full city council for a vote at its January meeting. If it passes, the new ordinance would go into effect the next day, leaving plenty of winter for legally sanctioned snowball fights on public property.
“I think we can get where we need to go and get to a better place where people don’t think Wausau is ridiculous for having this on its books,” Rasmussen said. “It’s just a simple action that we need to take.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.