FREE WHITEWATER

4 Points About Public Records Requests

So a local paper complains that a local school superintendent won’t comply with a public records request, won’t put the paper on a media contact list, and simply ‘must’ improve communications.  

A few points —

1.  Compliance with a public records request isn’t a ‘communications’ issue; it’s a legal issue, of rights of residents under Wisconsin law.  

2.  Perhaps there would be a greater willingness of public officials to comply with the Public Records Law (Wis. Stat. §§ 19.31-19.39) if newspapers hadn’t made clear that they’re too weak or too miserly to challenge officials’ non-compliance at law.

3.  A newspaper can say all it wants that it’s the ‘leading media company’ of its area, but that doesn’t mean much in a diverse media environment in which newspapers are doomed (as almost everyone knows them to be).  

In any event, social media messaging in many communities – by itself – vastly outstrips the reach of any media company.  Sorry, gentlemen, there is no ‘leading’ force anymore.  

4.  When a resident or publisher thinks about pursuing an issue in which a public records request might be needed, he or she should consider what might be next if officials slow-walk, respond only in part, or simply deny the lawful request.  One would prefer that local officials felt a duty other than self-interest disguised as public interest.  What one would prefer describes – less and less – the environment in which we live.

Residents, bloggers, and community groups that seek information under a public records law should be prepared to defend that request at law.  One hopes that won’t be necessary, but rights are more than hopes, and so one should think ahead, even before a request is submitted: what’s next at law if officials obstruct this request?  See, along these lines, Steps for Blogging on a Policy or Proposal.

That’s a big commitment, but a commitment one should be prepared to see through.  

3 comments for “4 Points About Public Records Requests

  1. G
    11/19/2015 at 2:12 PM

    It’s not going to be easy for many communities to restore a willingness to comply with requests. There’s been too much disregarding from cities/univesities/the state. You’re probably right that some of these public bodies will need to be sued to comply. The lawsuits are not going to be from newspapers. They’re scared to lose advertisers and elderly readers who don’t want to hear about problems.

  2. The Phantom Stranger
    11/20/2015 at 8:59 AM

    Republicans wish to move us to a feudal/serfdom system: you will have no right to ask questions. Let them eat cake.

  3. JOHN ADAMS
    11/20/2015 at 5:35 PM

    I’d say that the push against open records is bipartisan, or more properly, almost non-partisan (in the worst way). The tendency of incumbents in local government is to abandon after victory whatever ideology they may have professed, and to adopt a pro-incumbent position, regardless of major party leanings on national issues. Self-professed incumbent progressives and self-professed incumbent conservatives start to look especially alike when their interests converge around limiting access to public information.