By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Supreme Court unanimously sided with open-government advocates Thursday in a closely watched case over whether meetings conducted by a committee charged with reviewing course material in the Appleton school district were lawfully closed.
The court overturned earlier rulings in favor of the district and said the meetings should have been open to the public, and that proper notice should have been given of where and when they were gathering. Open-government advocates had warned that an adverse ruling could have provided a means for school boards and others to get around public access requirements.
Attorney General Brad Schimel, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, the Wisconsin Newspapers Association and the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association all filed briefs in support of the argument that the meetings violated state law.
“We’re very pleased with the ruling,” said Rick Esenberg, attorney with the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which also fought the school district’s decision. “We’re very gratified that all seven justices agreed with the result. That doesn’t often happen in these highly contested cases.”
Christine Hamiel, attorney for the school district that defended closing the meetings, did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, heralded the ruling as a “significant win for those who care about transparency in Wisconsin. Public officials cannot be creating committees to do the public’s business and then tell the public it cannot attend.”
The lawsuit was brought by John Krueger, the parent of an Appleton Area School District student who said the meetings of a committee charged with reviewing course material for a ninth-grade English class should have been open to the public.
Krueger argued in court filings that governmental bodies could evade the open-meetings law by having administrators, rather than the governing boards, set up committees. The district argued that when a committee is set up by school employees, it is not set up by “rule or order” of the governing body and therefore not subject to the law.
The court disagreed.
The committee “met the definition of ‘governmental body’ under the open meetings law and therefore was subject to its terms,” Justice Michael Gableman wrote for the court. Justices Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley concurred.
Krueger had raised concerns in 2011 about references to suicide and sex in the book “The Body of Christopher Creed,” which students in a freshman communications arts class read. Krueger requested an alternative class be offered that includes books containing no profanity, obscenities or sexualized content. He objected to subsequent closed-door committee meetings where his concerns were discussed.