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State Bar discusses list serve censorship concerns

In the wake of a subscriber complaint, the State Bar on Monday is addressing censorship on its member list serves.

The e-mail discussion groups are a popular State Bar member benefit and cover section topics such as elder law and practice management. Though the bar on its website states it does not actively monitor the discussion lists, members such as attorney Carol Wessels said recent incidents suggest otherwise.

According to Wessels — of Nelson, Irvings & Waeffler SC, Wauwatosa — a time-sensitive post by attorney Shirin H. Cabraal of Disability Rights Wisconsin in Milwaukee never made it to the list March 9 due to bar staff interaction with the posts.

The bar’s public relations coordinator, Tom Solberg, declined to comment on whether the bar engages in monitoring or censorship.

“We have rules that we do enforce as needed,” he said. “I think the rules kind of speak for themselves in terms of what we do and what we’ve done.”

According to the bar’s rules for list serve participation, found on www.wisbar.org: “The State Bar does not actively monitor the discussion lists for inappropriate postings. However, in the event that any inappropriate posting is brought to the attention of the State Bar, the State Bar will take appropriate action to enforce this Email List Policy.”

The March 9 post in question was from Cabraal, Wessels said, advising members of the Elder Law list serve that the Wisconsin Legislature was set to take fast action on the non-financial portions of the controversial Budget Repair Bill, which included lesser-known provisions regarding Medicaid that Elder Law section members might want to take action on.

Cabraal’s post never made the list serve that day, Wessels said, because, according to her, “The staff member who monitors them had gone home for the day.”

Wessels claims the bar has monitored the Elder Law list serve since a member wrote a message personally attacking another member.

Nerino Petro, the bar’s Law Practice Management advisor who moderates the Practice 411 list serv, addressed the concerns in a recent post to the 411 list, which stated: “[T]here is a difference between moderating a discussion thread and shutting down the list. This brings to light that we, as staff, need to revisit this issue and work on creating better guidelines.”

Solberg confirmed Petro’s post and said staff planned to meet Monday on the issue.

“They say, ‘The State Bar does not actively monitor the discussion lists for inappropriate postings,’ when in fact, they are,” Wessels said. “And the fact that it’s delaying the distribution of important information on substantive discussions is really troubling.”

Wessels said she would prefer members self-police their posts rather than have bar staff moderate.

“Do we want staff at the State Bar weighing in on the appropriateness of discussions in list serves? My answer is, I don’t, and I don’t think other lawyers want it, either,” she said. “It’s great to have the bar hosting list serves, but they ought not be the thought police.”

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