The law in the central Wisconsin city of Wausau, written in 1962, could not be clearer.
“No person shall throw or shoot any object, arrow, stone, snowball or other missile or projectile, by hand or by any other means, at any other person,” reads municipal ordinance 9.08.020, a chapter on weapons.
Officials in Wausau, a community of 38,000 known for granite quarries, ginseng farms and downhill skiing, have finally grown tired of the periodic mockery inspired by their ordinance, and the suggestion that they are a city that frowns on old-fashioned fun. Barstool Sports, a provocative sports media outlet, has called Wausau the “worst town in America.” Commenters on social media have derided the thought that throwing a friendly snowball could land you in jail. A television station reported — incorrectly — that the ordinance was passed only recently.
So Wausau’s elected officials have decided to vote at their next City Council meeting on whether to rescind the language making snowball fights potential crimes. (Throwing arrows, stones or other missiles is likely to remain illegal.)
The snowball issue was discussed “ad nauseam” at a recent committee meeting, said Linda Lawrence, a City Council member who predicted that the Council would indeed drop the snowball language from the ordinance in January. She said she brought a fresh snowball to the meeting and threw it across the room, where it landed on the police chief’s open laptop.
“Every so often, these archaic ordinances pop up that nobody’s read for years, and somebody finds it,” said Lawrence, a former mayor of Wausau. “Years ago, we had one that had some language about brothels and outhouses. I can’t remember what the actual law was, I just remember those words. But we took that off the books.”
Peculiar and often forgotten state and municipal laws exist all over the country, Wausau officials say in their defense. On this point, they are not wrong. It is illegal, for instance, to roller-skate on certain sidewalks in Farmington, Maine. In Oklahoma, anyone found “loitering about” and eavesdropping could be found guilty of a misdemeanor. For 72 years, yellow margarine could not be legally sold in Wisconsin.
In an effort to set the record straight on Wausau’s stance on snowballs, the Police Department not long ago made a video titled “What Exactly Is Our ‘Snowball’ Ordinance?” In the video, which the city posted online this month, Matt Barnes, the deputy chief, stood on a snowy lot while officers in knit caps cheerfully tossed snowballs at one another — and at him. (Barnes noted in the video that it happened to be 34 degrees, an ideal temperature, he said, for packing a snowball.)
As snowballs whizzed behind him, the mayor of Wausau, Robert Mielke, said that a “media source had mentioned that Wausau is not a fun city. That can’t be true.”
Barnes patiently recounted the facts: The ordinance was put in place for the safety of the community. The Wausau Police Department has issued citations based on the ordinance fewer than a dozen times in the last 15 years. Only twice, he said, was it for snowballs being thrown — and in both incidents, the snowballs were being aimed at passing cars.
In other situations, he said, people were cited for shooting crossbows in their yards, allowing arrows to fly into neighbors’ yards and land in trees. (Some deer hunters in Wisconsin favor the crossbow as a tool.)
“In case that’s not clear to individuals in our community,” Barnes said, reaching down in the city’s video to grab a handful of snow, “a fun snowball fight is a fun snowball fight. And that’s not something we enforce this ordinance with.”
He then turned and threw a snowball at Mielke, pelting him in the back of the neck.
No charges were expected.