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View from around the state: ‘Public’ records given that title for good reason

From the Leader-Telegram

It was disheartening last week to see three state Supreme Court justices siding with secrecy over openness in an open records dispute between the New Richmond News and that city’s police department.

The court deadlocked 3-3 on whether personal information on accident or crime reports should be exempted from the Wisconsin Open Records Law. Recently appointed Justice Rebecca Bradley did not weigh in because she was not on the court when her fellow justices heard the arguments in the case, which now goes back to the appeals court.

This issue arose more than 20 years ago in Illinois when someone who got a parking ticket was upset that his age, address, etc., were printed on the ticket in public view. Out of that came the 1994 Driver’s Privacy Protection Act that led to widespread confusion about what information truly is “personal.” To avoid possible controversy, some law enforcement agencies used that legislation as a license to redact so much information as to make police reports useless to anyone wishing to examine them, including the media.

Media outlets aren’t interested in someone’s driver’s license number or personal medical information. They are interested, and the public should be interested, in knowing who in their community interacted with the police or fire/rescue. For one thing, it’s the public’s money paying for these services. For another, secrecy invites corruption. Public officials could simply claim invasion of privacy to avoid public scrutiny if they get pulled over for a traffic violation or some other indiscretion.

The vast majority of traffic stops and accidents don’t involve public figures. When did it become an invasion of privacy to report the names of those hurt in traffic accidents and a one-word description of their condition? If a string of crimes is happening in your neighborhood, it’s important to know where and when these crimes occurred, who was victimized and what happened. The public shouldn’t have to resort to Facebook postings or gossip to try to piece together such events of public interest.

Our Founding Fathers included a free press in the First Amendment because they were well familiar with a government that punished dissenting voices and controlled what the people read. But what good is a free press if the government simply withholds more and more information in the name of privacy when there is no rational justification for doing so?

Sadly, this trend toward “privacy” can easily be used by those holding the records to keep from the public virtually anything they’d rather not disclose. If the public and press don’t object loudly, some government officials will push to keep even more of their records out of public view. Such behavior increases the levels of suspicion and distrust of those we elect and hire to serve us … and rightfully so.

Those who’d rather not have the public informed when they run afoul of the law have another option: obey the law. Or, as one newspaper once noted on its masthead: “If you don’t want it printed, don’t let it happen.”

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