Wisconsin’s highly touted open records law was the subject of a day long summit held in Madison on Wednesday. The event was hosted by Attorney General Brad Schimel, who told attendees that “messing with open government laws is like touching the third rail.” The AG was referring to the controversial effort by Republican legislative leaders to slip language into the state budget that would have hamstrung the public’s ability to access actions taken by state and local governments. That language was quickly deleted after bipartisan blowback. Wednesday’s summit was scheduled before the legislative action.
Participants addressed the government oversight and criminal justice aspects of open records in Wisconsin. Jill Karofsky is Executive Director of the state Office of Crime Victim Services. “There’s a constitutional right to privacy that victims have,” Karofsky said. “I absolutely recognize the need to disclose these records, so that all of us are able to monitor our government,” she said. “We want to do that because it makes us safer, it makes our government better. But disclosing the identity of crime victims doesn’t do that. It makes us less safe.”
Schimel said the law – originally written in the 1980s – provides little guidance on how authorities should respond to requests for video recorded by police body cams, when those recordings show people who are not criminal suspects. “I think we have a long way to go before we determine where the lines are, between what is necessary monitoring of government activity and necessary protection of privacy rights of citizens.” Schimel said.
WisPolitics.com President Jeff Mayers commented on the recent attempt by GOP lawmakers to roll back open records. “I disagree with the presumption that the state open records law needs to be rewritten or needs to be overhauled,” Mayers said. “Maybe it needs to be tweaked a little bit, but it’s proven to be very flexible.”
Schimel indicated that some tweaks may be acceptable, concerning the “deliberative process” of arriving at legislation. “There are some aspects that I do think the law could address, permitting people within an agency to exchange ideas before that becomes the final public document,” he said. “Ultimately it’s going to be up to the legislature to decide how to craft that.”