Wisconsin Supreme Court makes important decision on public records fees

Wisconsin Supreme Court rules government entities can't charge the public for redactions, which is the hours spent deleting confidential information from records. The decision marks a major victory for open government advocates and the media amid an intense debate over whether taxpayers or requesters should foot the bill for redactions costs, which can sometimes stretch into the hundreds or thousands of dollars. 


The Issue and the News

Wis. Supreme Court rules government can't charge requesters for redactions

June 27, 2012

From Wisconsin State Journal:

MADISON, Wis. — Government entities can't charge the public for time spent deleting confidential information from records, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The decision marks a major victory for open government advocates and the media amid an intense debate over whether taxpayers or requesters should foot the bill for redaction costs, which can sometimes stretch into the hundreds or thousands of dollars.

[...]

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, praised the decision.

"We believe this affirms not just the letter of the (open records) law but its spirit," Lueders said in a statement.

Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is a member of NFOIC. -- eds.

 

Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee argue public records law case at Supreme Court

April 20, 2012

From Journal Sentinel Online:

Who should bear the cost of censoring Milwaukee police reports requested by the media under Wisconsin's public records law?

Lawyers for the city and the Journal Sentinel argued both sides of that question Tuesday before the state Supreme Court, whose decision on the matter could have a significant impact on government accountability reporting.

Wisconsin State Supreme Court to hear case on public record fees

December 21, 2011

From The Journal Sentinel:

The state Supreme Court announced Monday it will hear arguments over whether previous Supreme Court decisions authorized government officials to charge for time spent by employees to separate and redact confidential information from public records.

The case stems from a lawsuit filed by the Journal Sentinel over fees the City of Milwaukee charged for public records.

 

Editorial

Wis. FOI Council statement on decision re: requesters' redactions

From Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council:

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has rendered an important decision, affirming that the state's open records law means what it says when it limits public officials to charging records requesters for just the "actual, necessary and direct cost" of making copies and in some cases locating and sending records. The court concluded that the drafters of the law recognized the need for custodians to review records and redact certain information, even as they provided no mechanism for recovery of any attendant costs.

We believe this affirms not just the letter of the law but its spirit, as reflected in the law's "Declaration of Policy," which holds that providing the public access to information "is declared to be an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of officers and employees whose responsibility it is to provide such information."

By "integral" and "routine," the Legislature did not mean to say, "for an additional cost..."  As the opinion observes, access goes hand-in-hand with cost: "The greater the fee imposed on a request of a public record, the less likely the requester will be willing and able to successfully make a record request. . . . "[T]he imposition of costs, as a practical matter, inhibits access."

The interpretation announced today has been supported all along by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, as well as by the state Justice Department under Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen.

With regard to the concurring opinion by several justices suggesting that the law should perhaps be changed to allow the imposition of these costs, we note the need to review records and redact certain information has been part of open records compliance for decades. The efforts by some custodians to charge extra for this function is a relatively new development.

Wisconsin's strong open records law is integral to the preservation of clean government and a functioning democracy. It is well worth the cost that compliance with the law entails. Let's not weaken our law by letting government officials charge extra for obeying it.

Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is a member of NFOIC. -- eds.

Other reactions:

 

Your Right to Know: You can't charge a lot for this record, court rules (7/7/2012)  

Value of open government immeasurable (7/5/2012)

Journal Times editorial: Open Records Law wins this round (6/29/2012)

Public records will remain accessible (6/29/2012)

Court gets it right in public records ruling (6/27/2012)

Newspaper, city argue public records law case at Supreme Court (4/17/2012)