Special interest lobbying organization continues to push false narrative deriding Wisconsin farmers and small business owners

Wisconsin state law requires you to obtain a liquor license if you are selling alcohol, or if you are going to allow consumption of alcohol in a “public place.” The issue that has been brought up over the past year deals with the latter.

For years, the state has interpreted “public place” in a way that excludes purely private events, like weddings. This makes sense, if the general public has no right to attend or remain in such places, they are not public. Many farm owners in Wisconsin have been able to put a little extra money in their pocket by repurposing their old barn buildings into private event spaces in recent years.

This business model has worked well for the barn owners and for many couples in Wisconsin who sought to get married in a picturesque setting. With their success and popularity growing, wedding barns attracted the attention of the Tavern League – a special interest lobbying group that has, for years, sought to enact laws that limit competition for their member bars and restaurants in the state.

Over the past year the Tavern League tried to amend the law to expand the licensing and permitting requirements from just property that is a “public place” to explicitly include certain property that is “not a public place.” This expanded licensing requirement would have applied to venues such as wedding barns, but also would have impacted many other things like parking spaces around Lambeau Field, vacation rental properties, Airbnb, and more. Fortunately, those attempts to change the law failed.

Having failed to amend the law to say what they want it to say, those special interests turned to the former attorney general and asked him to reinterpret existing law in a way that gets them what they want. Unfortunately for the wedding barn industry, the former attorney general did just that: he released an informal analysis that disagreed with years of precedent and found that places become “public” if they are available to the public to rent.

This analysis from the former attorney general has no force of law and is not binding on anyone, but it has created significant confusion. For years, the state interpreted the law one way and then suddenly the former attorney general arrived at a completely different interpretation. Faced with this confusion over the future of their industry and a changing administration, and rather than wait and subject themselves to months more of uncertainty and the possibility of getting shut down, two barn owners decided to go on the offensive and clear up this confusion once-and-for-all.

On behalf of those barns, WILL filed a lawsuit in Dunn County asking the court for a declaration that the law continues to mean what it has meant for years – that private events, not open to the public, do not require a liquor license merely to consume alcohol. This litigation has nothing to do with a separate statute that requires licenses to sell alcohol. These barns do not sell alcohol nor do they provide alcohol.

The Tavern League is not happy about the suit. In fact, this week they sent a memorandum to all legislators spreading misinformation and hyperbole about the nature of this litigation. In it, they claim this suit will somehow lead to the end of all alcohol licensure in the state. And they make all kinds of outlandish claims about wedding barns that have nothing at all to do with our lawsuit.

The truth is, a victory in this lawsuit will simply provide certainty for all parties. It would mean nothing changes from the way it has been, and that the meaning of the law cannot change simply because the former attorney general said it did.

This litigation has nothing at all to do with the sale of alcohol. That’s a separate statute and will continue to be in force and require licensure of anyone selling alcohol. This is solely about the requirement to obtain a license to consume alcohol in a “public place.” A public place is somewhere that the public has a right to enter and remain. It is not, as the former attorney general said, any place that the general public can rent. A wedding barn is not open to the public. Individuals cannot walk off the street and enter a barn and stay there.

This litigation will continue to move forward in order to make sure the law remains as it has been and, unfortunately, I am sure the Tavern League will continue to ratchet up their heated rhetoric and attacks on these farmers and small business owners.

Lucas Vebber is Deputy Counsel and Director of Regulatory Reform and Federalism at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.