Home / Commentary / View from around the state: Schimel has right attitude on open records

View from around the state: Schimel has right attitude on open records

— From The Journal Times of Racine

“We shouldn’t be searching for what we can redact or what we can refuse to disclose, but rather what we must refuse to disclose,” state Attorney General Brad Schimel said Wednesday. We’re glad someone in Madison is looking to carve out a narrow exception to the state’s open records law, as opposed to the broad exception Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Scott Walker’s office were set to include in the biennial budget before bipartisan opposition led to its removal from the budget.

Schimel spoke at an open government forum on Wednesday at a Madison hotel. It had been arranged before the effort to gut the open records law took place just before the Fourth of July weekend, but that episode made the forum all the more timely.

So, too, did the release that same day of video from the body camera of a University of Cincinnati police officer indicted for shooting to death Samuel DuBose, an unarmed black man, on July 19. On Thursday, DuBose’s family said the officer would never have been prosecuted if his actions had not been captured by the body camera the officer was wearing, the New York Times reported.

That may very well be true. Video footage does not lie and does not have an inability to recall details. Because of its objectivity in unedited form, it presents an accurate depiction of an officer’s actions. Which means that body-camera footage would serve to exonerate officers operating within the law and within departmental guidelines.

Body-camera footage is just one of the new frontiers of governmental records. As Schimel said, Wisconsin’s open records laws were written in the 1970s and adopted in 1981, “long before anyone envisioned email or tweeting.”

We are staunch defenders of Wisconsin’s open records law. Government records are the people’s property, not those of whoever is presently holding a government office.

But just as we at The Journal Times decide not to publish particular pieces of information in the interest of protecting crime victims, there were legitimate arguments made at the forum for narrow limits on the release of certain government records.

Jill Karofsky, who works with crime victims for the Department of Justice, said laws should be updated to provide protections of privacy for crime victims, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. She said if a crime victim is afraid to file a report for fear of personal information being released, communities will be less safe.

We agree. The photos of a victim of an assault are state’s evidence and thus are government records. But just as we would not publish such photos without the consent of the victim, those photos should not be made available to the public. We can see only harassment of victims coming from such public availability.

With regard to officer body camera footage, Schimel said the law does not address how long camera footage should be kept on file, what has to be recorded and what doesn’t, or whether a bystander in the video has a right to object to his or her private information becoming public information in a video release.

“I think we have a long way to go before we determine where the lines are between what is necessary monitoring of government activity and (what is) necessary protection of privacy rights of citizens,” he said.

We’re inclined to agree. In the meantime, we’re glad to see Attorney General Schimel demonstrate a positive attitude with regard to the concept of open records. We can only hope his attitude is contagious enough to make it from his office to the chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office.

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