Your Right to Know: Supreme Court openness rulings a mixed bag

As befits a year in which anything, it seems, can happen, the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s public records docket this term was marked by atypical cases. In Voces de la Frontera v. Clarke, the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department redacted information from immigration detainer forms provided in response to public records requests, asserting that a federal immigration regulation required the redactions. A Milwaukee County judge and the Wisconsin Court of Appeals concluded that federal law did not require the redactions, but the Supreme Court disagreed. Open government advocates were disappointed that the Supreme Court’s opinion focused almost exclusively on this interpretation of federal law, not the presumptions of openness enshrined in Wisconsin statutes. In Teague v. Schimel, the court looked at whether the Wisconsin Department of Justice violated individuals’ rights by releasing background check materials that sometimes reflected the criminal records of other individuals with the same names and birthdates or that had been used as aliases.

Your Right to Know: End lawmakers’ ability to destroy records

Not long ago, I asked Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) for records regarding a controversial bill he helped author on free-speech rights at state universities. I had already obtained some communications between Vos aide Alicia Schweitzer and the Legislative Reference Bureau, from the bill-drafting file. They showed that his office had added bill language calling on UW-System schools to punish “indecent, profane, boisterous (or) obscene” conduct that interfered with others’ free speech. The LRB bill drafter, Mark Kunkel, deleted these terms, saying they were overly broad and ambiguous. But Schweitzer insisted that they be restored.

Your Right to Know: Lawmakers abuse budget-fix motion

It’s been nearly two years since Republicans in the state Legislature tried to use a secretive, last-minute measure just before the July 4 holiday weekend to gut Wisconsin’s open records law. This effort, once publicized, was met with public outrage and abandoned. This was the most egregious but by no means only example of lawmakers trying to slip bad ideas into the state budget bill in the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, under what is known as a 999 motion. As lawmakers prepare to wrap up the 2017-19 state budget by July 1, the 999 motion remains a serious threat to open government and the public interest. Originally intended to address technical issues and correct problems in the budget bill before it goes to the full Legislature, 999 motions have increasingly been used by both parties as a hiding spot for pet projects.

WCIJ Associate Director Lauren Fuhrmann named to national Emerging Leaders Council by Institute for Nonprofit News

Lauren Fuhrmann, associate director of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, is among 10 mid-career professionals selected for the first Investigative News Network Emerging Leaders Council, a peer group of leading business and news leaders who will meet for a year to work on news industry challenges, build support networks and develop professional skills.

Your Right to Know: Walker’s order on records is welcome

In March, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker issued an executive order directing state agencies to track and post their open record request response times and giving procedural guidance that should make it easier for citizens to request and receive records.

Wisconsin’s ‘news deserts’ hurt our democracy — but you can help

News deserts are geographical areas or socioeconomic groups that are parched of fresh, important local news, whether it’s a result of the shuttering of neighborhood newspapers, downsizing and the limited resources of news outlets or a lack of coverage of particular topics. Help WCIJ identify news deserts in Wisconsin by writing to me at msato@wisconsinwatch.org.