The Newspaper-Caused Public Records Problem

Not far from Whitewater, Janesville’s local newspaper finds itself in an access-to-information conflict with the Janesville School District.  There’s no surprise in any of this.  (Quick note: I’m using that paper as an example because it’s close-at-hand.  One could find other examples easily enough.)

For years that paper has ridiculed citizens’ petition efforts, toadied to business insiders, pushed government spending for those same business factions, included itself in a supposedly elite group (oh, brother!) of Janesville movers-and-shakers, all-the while producing some of the weakest editorials of any paper in Wisconsin.

It’s no wonder that Janesville’s school superintendent shows no respect to that paper: public records requests are either ignored or answered with what seems to be a laughable inadequacy. Having spat on so many who exercised free speech in that city, Janesville’s waning paper now finds itself without the clout to assure full compliance with public records requests, requests that are, after all, a matter of law.  Wis. Stat. §§ 19.31-19.39.

It seems unlikely that the paper will spend the time and money to litigate public records requests to assure full compliance.  This unwillingness to commit the time and effort is no doubt evident to Janesville’s school district – they can probably spot a paper tiger (yes, it’s an awkward play on words) when they see one.

That’s unfortunate, but it’s more than a Janesville problem – it’s a problem for others nearby.  Officials’ ability to brook lawful requests there will likely influence policymakers nearby, and encourage them to provide inadequate answers, too.

That leaves the rest of us – residents, bloggers, etc. – starting at a disadvantage: the Janesville paper’s toothless response will lull policymakers in other communities to assume falsely that they’ll be able to disregard requests as Janesville’s policymakers have done.  One will have to begin every step with the commitment and expectation to enforce those rights at law.

In this environment, it won’t matter what one says, hopes, or expects – it will only matter how one proceeds.  Proceeding may be inconvenient,  but the alternative is far worse: enduring passively the infringement of one’s right to open government.

What a mess it is that print is leaving left behind, that others will have to clean up.

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