Our Views: Wisconsin judge's ruling is victory for government transparency

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Wisconsin's newspaper industry couldn't have imagined a bigger victory for government transparency than the one announced Friday—in the twilight of Sunshine Week, no less.

The public should be applauding just as much.

A St. Croix County judge ruled in favor of the New Richmond News in an open-records case tied to the Drivers Privacy Protection Act. Judge Howard Cameron ruled the federal privacy act did not require the city of New Richmond to redact—or black out—personal information from police reports.

Why is this so important? A report in The Gazette's March 12 public record illustrates it well. A driver led Rock County sheriff's deputies on a high-speed chase March 8. They arrested him on charges of fleeing an officer, second-offense drunken driving and endangering safety by intoxicated use of a firearm for shooting on DNR land. The driver and another man face criminal damage charges for shooting mailboxes. Deputies seized a loaded shotgun and a machete-type knife.

The men's names are … ? Sorry. Fearing a possible liability lawsuit, the sheriff's office stopped releasing names on incident reports. Absent Judge Cameron's ruling, readers wouldn't learn the identity of these suspects until they appeared in court. In the meantime, readers could unfairly suspect friends or neighbors.

 The law enforcement redactions had become the most troubling trend of government secrecy.

 The privacy act was designed to keep your driver's record information from being made public without your permission. The idea was to prevent stalkers and others with ill intentions from getting access.

That led a court to rule against Palatine, Ill., police for leaving identifying information in a parking ticket on a windshield. Municipal insurers and their attorneys have been advising authorities to withhold drivers record information. As a result, The Gazette hasn't been getting reports of accidents, crimes and arrests from most area law agencies, which won't take the time to redact names and addresses.

The sheriff's office was among the most recent to fall in line. It has been releasing short reports that disclose ages, genders and municipalities of residence. Almost all of the names it gets come through drivers records, so the sheriff's office has been withholding them.

Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore deserves kudos for holding out and remaining a champion of the public's right to know. For example, his department recently released investigative reports related to possible abuse of an autistic child by a Milton school principal. The department could have sat on reports and forced The Gazette to file a formal open-records request, or it could have redacted and rendered them useless to reporters and the public. Instead, it did the right thing and released public records to the public.

These liability fears ignore the Wisconsin open records law, which has served us well for decades and has been affirmed by landmark court rulings. Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen at first advised law agencies to ignore the Illinois case. He did the public no favor, however, by later saying he wouldn't comment until the New Richmond case is resolved.

So are we returning to the openness allowed under state law? Without affirmation from Van Hollen, that's uncertain. As of Friday afternoon, the city of New Richmond had not indicated whether it would appeal Cameron's decision.

Madison attorney Bob Dreps, a media law expert, represented the New Richmond News in its lawsuit and believed all along that state law protected police agencies.

 “The whole point of the open records law is to hold government officials accountable to what they do,” Dreps said earlier. “What value is an accident report without names? There's no public accountability without names, no oversight of our public officials. How do we know what they're doing is appropriate if everything is anonymous?”

Judge Cameron's ruling deserves a salute from all who value government transparency.

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