In an age where major public policies are announced and debated through platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the courts are increasingly barring public officials from limiting people’s access to social media. In late July, a Virginia judge ruled that public officials do not have the right to block people who disagree with their views from an official Facebook page. A legal challenge also has been brought by people blocked from the president’s @realDonaldTrump Twitter feed. And in August, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine sued on behalf two residents who claim the governor violated their First Amendment rights by blocking them from posting on his “Paul LePage, Maine’s Governor” Facebook page. In the Virginia case, resident Brian Davison sued Loudoun County Board Chairwoman Phyllis Randall for blocking access to her Facebook page after he posted allegations that school board members and their families had possible conflicts of interest.
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.
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.