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Our Views: Keeping secret sexual misconduct is so 2016

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Sunday, December 3, 2017

Nobody should be shocked to learn Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, opposes releasing records related to sexual harassment at the state Capitol.

Two years ago, she joined her Republican colleagues on the Joint Finance Committee in an attempt to gut Wisconsin's open record laws and block public access to legislators' emails and other materials that shine light on the legislative process.

At the time, she justified the vote by claiming she wanted to protect the privacy of constituents identified in documents, and only a last-minute public outcry stopped the committee's recommendation from becoming law. Hers is a convenient argument, and lawmakers are wielding a similar one to stop the release of documents detailing any sexual harassment by legislators.

Legislators have refused to release these documents in the name of protecting victims' identities, which would be noble if legislators weren't so eager to prevent the release of their own colleagues' identities.

In truth, legislators have the authority to redact victims' identities within documents, though legislators claim this tool—used routinely by governments to fulfill open records requests—would somehow be inadequate for managing requests related to sexual harassment in the Legislature.

It's disappointing Loudenbeck is siding with the good ol' boys on this issue, as she did in 2015 in trying to gut the open records law. This is 2017—the year of #MeToo. This is the year women stand up for themselves and declare, in the spirit of the 1976 movie, “Network,” “I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore.”

For too long, governments and corporations have provided cover for perpetrators, sometimes binding victims with legal agreements that prevent them from speaking out. This culture of secrecy perversely implies victims have reason to feel ashamed. Yes, efforts must be made to protect victims' identities, but a balance must be struck to ultimately hold the perpetrator accountable, not only to the human resources department but to voters who decide whether legislators should be re-elected.

Some critics might ask: What if a legislator has been falsely accused? What about the presumption of innocence? We certainly aren't advocating legislators withhold documentation demonstrating an allegation is false. If an investigation reveals a legislator has been falsely accused, the public should know this, too. But history shows a majority of sexual misconduct allegations are credible, and the public should be allowed to decide for itself what to make of any investigation's conclusion.

If legislators lose their jobs as a result of being “outed” for sexual misconduct, so be it. Voters have a right to know whether their representatives are behaving inappropriately. In 2017, sexual misconduct became a disqualifier for employment, and this should be the case for elected office, too.

Both Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald appear stuck in 2016 with their refusals to release documentation. They say there's been few incidents during their tenures—with the notorious exception of former Assembly Majority Leader Bill Kramer, who was accused of groping an political aide in 2011. Kramer lost his leadership position, and his colleagues seemed to properly handle the incident.

It's good to know Wisconsin legislators are policing themselves, but the public shouldn't take it on faith that Vos, Fitzgerald or any other lawmaker has the situation under control. In the age of #MeToo, there's no good excuse for protecting people who engage in sexual misconduct.



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