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Baraboo police investigate threats in wake of photo controversy

November 17, 2018 GMT

Baraboo police are investigating not only the sharing of a controversial photograph of local high school students, but threats to public safety that resulted.

Earlier this week, a picture showing some prom-bound boys delivering what appear to be white supremacist gestures was shared online, sparking a firestorm of outrage.

Some students and alumni have said the incident exemplifies longstanding intolerance at Baraboo High School. Others have said most students with their arms raised in an apparent Nazi salute are merely waving as instructed by photographer Peter Gust.

Who downloaded the pre-prom group photo from Gust’s website six months after it was posted and shared it via Twitter — and why — remains unknown.

“The Police Department is doing an investigation into the events of the photo to include a determination if there are any violations of criminal or civil law that are under our purview for enforcement,” Chief Mark Schauf said.

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Police are assisting the Baraboo School District, he said, but the schools’ internal investigation lies outside the scope of what police would handle.

“Any investigation into the incident by the school is independent of the police,” Schauf said. “As they work through different aspects of this complex issue, items related to the photo and additional problems like threats to the safety of students and staff are being looked into by the police.”

He acknowledged the students’ right to freely express themselves. The department has come under attack for investigating the incident, as critics have assumed incorrectly police sought to infringe on their First Amendment rights.

“It’s my job to protect the constitutional rights of everyone in Baraboo, and also to protect public safety,” Schauf said.

The photo has made Baraboo the subject of national news all week. Furious criticism has been leveled from within the community and from the outside, with staff in city and school offices facing violent threats from all over the country, according to Schauf.

The photo was shared via the anonymous @GoBaraboo Twitter account. Schauf said determining the identity of who shared it would require a court order. To get one, he’d need probable cause that the act of sharing the photo played a role in a crime.

“If the photo was posted with malicious intent, there could be charges there,” he said.

Unless there’s probable cause of that, the poster has a constitutional right against a “document” they created and deleted being searched for and seized.

Schauf reported public and private workers have been threatened through telephone calls and email messages. Prosecution of such communication depends on the level of threat, its specificity and the initiator’s ability to carry it out.

“Our investigation is still open and active as we develop and work in the world of social media, which can be very complex and dynamic,” Schauf said.