Activists Sue To Reopen Wisconsin, As Civil Rights Debates Rage On

May 6, 2020

A coalition of conservative activists is petitioning the Wisconsin Supreme Court to overturn safer-at-home directives, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The activists, affiliated with the controversial Heartland Institute, say Gov. Tony Evers’ limits on gatherings infringe on their rights to religion and assembly.

The coronavirus pandemic has invigorated debates around civil rights and democracy across America. Lawsuits and protests have challenged public health directives in the name of freedom.

“Some of the ways we use language of rights, actually introduce practices that, while protecting individual rights to freedom, collectively have the effect of undermining a group interest,” said Jennifer Fenton, a visiting assistant professor of political theory at Marquette University.

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Fenton has researched a shift in attitudes around freedom since American independence. While at first Americans sought freedom from a monarchical rule, the industrial revolution moved most Americans to value their freedom to do as they wish despite private commercial interests. Today’s conservatives, Fenton argues, have restored that former understanding of freedom, except they’ve applied it to their own government.

“Alternatively, the narrative could be focused on the government’s responsibility to be transparent or ensure that people have access to health care and a living wage at this time,” said Fenton.

Ideally, these ideas are debated in an organic manner, so the rights of some aren’t used to limit the rights of others. If the lawsuit succeeds at lifting safer-at-home orders, then the government won’t restrict healthy people from leaving their homes and going to work. But the virus will still keep immunocompromised people shut indoors under a defacto safer-at-home mandate.

“Democracy isn’t just about voting. It’s not just about aggregating preferences. It’s about discussion with one another to generate a conception of a common good,” said Fenton.

"The narrative doesn't generate organically from a group of people. It's planted."

Fenton worries that some activists’ failure to establish a basis for “common good” might be by design. Online activists and scholars such as herself have invoked the concept of “astroturfing.” That’s when some groups that appear to organize from grassroots social concerns are coordinated by more established institutions like businesses and political committees.

“There’s cultural meaning tied to grassroots organizing,” said Fenton. "The narrative doesn’t generate organically from a group of people. It’s planted.”

The Washington Post has reported on astroturfing allegations in Wisconsin’s anti-quarantine movement. The Facebook group Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine and related groups in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, are apparently tied to an organization called Minnesota Gun Rights, which presents itself as a hardline alternative to the NRA.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that the group solicits donations from people who sign up to demonstrate against pandemic lockdowns. The report also found that the IRS stripped Minnesota Gun Rights of their tax-exempt status in 2016, allegedly for funneling proceeds to a for-profit business owned by the organizers’ family.

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