Prosecution collapses against feminist charged with hate crime for anti-transgender stickers

Madison, Wisconsin police scoured city surveillance to track down musician with a distinctive bicycle.

Published: September 27, 2021 4:07pm

Updated: September 28, 2021 9:25pm

A gender-critical feminist who rejects transgender ideology has escaped prosecution for an alleged hate crime: placing stickers promoting her views in heavily stickered parts of Madison, Wisc., home to the University of Wisconsin

Thistle Pettersen was facing up to $10,000 in fines and two years behind bars for a hate-crime "modifier" to a disorderly conduct charge, which by itself carries $10,000 in fines and 90 days in jail, according to the criminal complaint.

The Women's Liberation Front (WoLF), which is assisting the 53-year-old activist and musician, accused the Dane County district attorney of "either a grave error or an additional layer of prosecutorial overreach" by misclassifying the upgraded charge as a felony.

It started a petition to DA Ismael Ozanne to drop the charges and stop "using tax-payer money to facilitate anti-woman bullying by extremist activists." Wisconsin hate-crime statutes don't cover gender identity, WoLF said. (The complaint itself mentions sexual orientation, which is covered.)

The DA's office floundered at Pettersen's first court appearance Monday, according to a WoLF recap of the hearing. The prosecution blamed "incomplete language" for gender identity being left out of the hate-crime statutes, and did not object to her political-speech defense of the stickers. 

The case record shows Dane County Circuit Court Commissioner Mark Fremgen dismissed both the modifier and the count, with no objection by the state. The DA's office didn't respond to queries from Just the News.

This was the first time her critics tried to get her in trouble with the law, Pettersen said in a phone interview. She paid $1,500 to a defense attorney, though her crowdfunded legal defense has already recouped the cost.

Following the dropped case, "I feel freer. I feel better. I can walk around" feeling vindicated, she told Just the News. But the case "should have been dismissed out of hand right away."

Criminal charges for purported hate speech are rare in the U.S. because of the First Amendment. The highest profile prosecution in recent memory happened against two University of Connecticut students for shouting the n-word in an empty parking lot. The state has a longstanding "ridicule" law deemed unconstitutional by legal experts.

On gender identity specifically, a California appeals court invalidated a provision of a law on LGBTQ rest-home residents that made "willful and repeated" misgendering punishable with up to $2,500 in fines and 180 days in jail. 

"[T]he First Amendment does not protect only speech that inoffensively and artfully articulates a person's point of view," the court ruled this summer, deeming the provision a content-based restriction on employees. The state claimed the provision was a constitutional "time, place and manner" restriction.

The next fight is states versus the Biden administration. Texas is suing to block the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from enforcing guidance that requires employers to let employees use bathrooms, locker rooms, showers, dress codes and personal pronouns based on their gender identity.

'Trans Lie$ Matter'

A member of WoLF and founder of Women's Liberation Radio News, Pettersen has a history of bad blood with trans activists in Madison that goes back several years.

In a 2019 essay on "How I Became the Most Hated Folk Singer in Madison," Pettersen said she had been effectively canceled in activist and music circles for her views, especially after carrying a sign reading "Don't Believe the Hype!! Transactivism is Misogyny!" at the local Women's March. 

She sought a restraining order against an activist for allegedly leading harassment campaigns against her. Pettersen told Just the News she also filed, and voluntarily withdrew, a defamation lawsuit against the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice for a since-removed 2017 statement accusing her of making transgender people suicidal.

Dane County is a hotbed of hate-crime prosecutions relative to the rest of Wisconsin, according to local station Channel 3000, and the criminal complaint makes clear how seriously Madison police take such allegations.

They ripped through city surveillance camera footage after Patrick Farabaugh, owner of local LGBTQ magazine Our Lives, filed a complaint about the stickering of one or more of his media boxes. The magazine defamed her in a 2018 article, she claims.

The complaint said the stickers read "TERF Collective," referring to a group that embraces the slur "trans-exclusionary radical feminist," which is often used against gender-critical feminists by transgender activists. (According to WoLF's petition, other stickers said "Woman = Adult Human Female," "Everything is Transphobic" and "Trans Lie$ Matter," referring to pharmaceutical profits from trans treatments.)

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Farabaugh told police he "strongly believes" Pettersen was the culprit and that the act made him feel "attacked and intimidated." Surveillance identified a white female on a distinctive bicycle who matched a government image of Pettersen, and the same bike was viewed in Pettersen's Facebook photos. (UConn police pored over surveillance for 11 days to identify the students who shouted the n-word.)

Interviewed by police, she said something like "How are those stickers any different than the ones other people are putting up downtown?" but neither confirmed nor denied responsibility. Asked directly by Just the News whether she did it, Pettersen gave the same answer.

She wasn't surprised how much effort Madison police put into identifying the culprit, given the influence of transgender activists in city politics, but the reference to sexual orientation in the hate-crime charge "made no sense" because TERF Collective is a predominantly lesbian group.

"Sticker wars" between trans activists and so-called TERFS in Madison predate this incident, she said, pointing to her radio organization's coverage. Someone wrote "Hi T.P." on a defaced sticker, which she regarded as a threat. Another sticker targeting her popped up in a local club over the weekend, she said: "This Hole."

Sticker allegedly referring to Thistle Pettersen
Sticker allegedly referring to Thistle Pettersen
Thistle Pettersen
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Beyond enacting laws such as New York City's preferred pronoun rules for employers, transgender activism in the U.S. tends to focus on demanding the discipline or firing of professionals, especially educators, for flouting their orthodoxy.

Courts have recently pushed back on some of these crusades. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Ohio's Shawnee State University could not force professor Nicholas Meriwether to use a student's preferred pronouns, and the Virginia Supreme Court ordered Loudoun County Public Schools to reinstate teacher Tanner Cross after he spoke against a proposed gender identity policy.

Authorities in Great Britain, by contrast, routinely bring criminal charges against individuals for expressing views that oppose transgender ideology. 

Scottish police charged Marion Millar with "malicious communications" for allegedly transphobic tweets, even after a similar sticker campaign was deemed not to violate the new hate-crime law. English police arrested Kate Scottow in front of her children, and jailed her for several hours, for calling a transgender woman a man on Twitter.

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