— From the Appleton Post-Crescent
On the surface, it might look reasonable, but an appeals court decision about the state’s open records law will close the public’s access to information it has a right to see.
The ruling comes in the case of a Milwaukee school board, which denied a request to give an employee’s attendance and disciplinary records to a man who had been accused of abusing her and had a past restraining order against him.
The school board had denied the request because of the man’s past and he had sued. The appeals court ruled that the man’s history aligned him “more closely with the class of persons statutorily denied access to public records for all safety reason, that is, committed and incarcerated persons.”
Again, that might seem reasonable, right? But in making the ruling, the court said that government officials can consider the intentions of people who file open records requests when deciding whether to fill them. That’s a problem — a big problem.
The open records law starts with the premise that all records are open and then makes narrow exceptions to the law. Requesters don’t have to say why they want a record. They don’t even have to identify themselves.
This ruling puts those rights in jeopardy for everyone.
An attorney for the Wisconsin League of Municipalities told the Associated Press that she doesn’t expect the ruling will lead government officials to reject requests by the media or other members of the public.
Of course, it will.
Already, public officials deny access to records that should be open. They use gray areas in the exceptions to the law. They don’t respond to requests. They charge exorbitant costs. They misinterpret the law. They flat-out violate the law.
They won’t use this incredible opportunity to close off information from public view? Sure, they will.
If there were a way to amend the law to create an exception in a case like this, it would be worth consideration. But it’s unlikely that such an exception could be created. It would either be so narrow as to be meaningless or, much more likely, it would be just broad enough to create another gray area that could be exploited.
Unfortunately, it’s been our experience that governments will try to use whatever gray areas or loopholes there are in the law to their advantage — to shut the public out.
This is a loophole that needs to be closed as quickly as possible — by the courts or by the Legislature.