Your Right to Know: Don’t Chip Away at Open Records Law » Urban Milwaukee
Bill Lueders
Your Right to Know

Don’t Chip Away at Open Records Law

Access to public information should not be limited based on who's requesting it.

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Sunshine. Photo by Oliverherold (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunshine. Photo by Oliverherold (CC BY 3.0)

One great thing about Wisconsin’s open records law is that it’s not supposed to matter who wants records or why.

The law, enacted in 1983, asserts that no state or local government office may deny a request because the person making it “is unwilling to be identified or to state the purpose of the request.”

This is an important principle, because access to public information should not be limited to people whose motives have been deemed pure. In fact, citizens and political parties often use the law to scrutinize public officials and political opponents. That’s how it should be.

A few years back, the primary author of Wisconsin’s open records law, former state Sen. Lynn Adelman, now a federal judge, told a group of open government advocates that he was prepared to kill the entire bill rather than accept an amendment that would have removed this ability to make anonymous requests. Public records, he felt, needed to be public to all.

Over the years, this ideal has sustained damage. In 1996, the state Legislature limited the ability of incarcerated persons to make records requests. In 2005, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that an alleged sexual harasser could be denied access to unredacted records regarding complaints against him. In 2014, a state appeals court backed up a school district that refused to provide records regarding one of its employees to a man with a history of violence against her.

These are tough cases; inmates, harassers and abusers are not sympathetic figures. But we must be careful about denying access to records based on who is asking.

In late 2016, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld a state agency’s decision to deny a request for training videos, ostensibly to protect sensitive law enforcement techniques. The decision’s author, Justice Rebecca Bradley, noted in passing that the records requester, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, had a “partisan purpose” in making its request.

That’s troubling, because the requester’s purpose shouldn’t matter—and, it can be argued, still does not, despite Bradley’s careless wording. If Democrats can be denied access because they are partisan, so can Republicans. Or anyone.

Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court ruled against a labor union that sought records to help secure votes in a recertification election. The court’s conservative majority accepted arguments, unsubstantiated by any evidence, that the union might use these records to harass. Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, writing in dissent, called this a “concocted concern.”

This case involved a particular set of circumstances, and its reach should not apply to other requests. But we must remain wary about taking any requester’s identity or motives into account. That provides a too-easy out for officials looking for excuses to keep public information under wraps.

To quote from the law, “all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them.” All persons — not just those the government likes.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Bill Lueders, managing editor of The Progressive, is is the group’s president.

2 thoughts on “Your Right to Know: Don’t Chip Away at Open Records Law”

  1. GreenDoor says:

    As the author quotes, the purpose of public records law is to provide people with “information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them”. The purpose, clearly is NOT to enable harassers, stalkers, and abusers access to records that could enable them to continue their abuse of an individual simply because their potential victim works in government service.

    There *should* be thoughtfully made exceptions allowed to the “all persons” rule, and the cases of harassers, abusers, and stalkers show that.

  2. Terry says:

    Career Politician Scott Walker and his gaggle of corrupt, scheming Republican half-wits will never allow free and fair elections. They radically gerrymandered the state and stole our voting rights for a reason, to maintain power forever. The corrupt Republican party in Wisconsin knows that it can’t win a free and fair election so they gerrymandered Wisconsin so that even if Democrats win 60%+ of the vote, (as they have in past elections) Republicans still “win”. It’s called corruption. It’s also called cheating, scheming, lying and stealing and along with mooching off taxpayers and living high on the hog for decades like Walker has while giving away billions to their Big Corporate Dark Money donors in pay to play schemes and billions more of our tax dollars to Chinese billionaires in Corporate Welfare schemes while raping the environment and scapegoating and blaming women, teachers, the poor and the working class is all Career Politician and Republicans know how to do. Sadly, the best and brightest have alreadt fled Wisconsin and all that is left are poor Wisconsinites that are so desperate, poor and hopeless after 8 years of Republican tyranny they are clinging to their 3 $7.50 part-time no benefits wage slave jovs like grim death. Believe it or not living in a trailer, broke and drunk in Walker’s Wississippi could still get worse. After Walker ” wins” again in November watch the hammer drop on all these good but desperately impoverished people. Trump and Walker know, this is how Democracy dies…to thunderous applause.

    Dump Walker 2018

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