August: Keep court records open and online

2006 Columns

Public records are just that — public. They should not be hidden or blocked by red tape or intimidation.

They should be easy to access, view and learn from.

Wisconsin’s Web site for circuit court records is a great example of government respect for the public’s right to know. The popular site,, lists just about any charges and convictions from courthouses across the state. It also gives dates, times and locations for future court appearances.

Some criminals are complaining that the site makes it hard for them to dodge their pasts. But isn’t that the point? The site can help people protect themselves. It also can deter crime by providing a consequence beyond incarceration.

That’s not to say the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access Web site can’t be better. For example, the site should avoid confusion by more clearly designating between charges filed against a person and the actual convictions that resulted.

Adding a glossary of court terms and offenses is another good idea being pursued.

What the state should not do is cave in to those who want to limit or discourage access to public records detailing crimes ranging from petty traffic violations to terrible child assaults.

Parents can check the site to see if their child’s bus driver has speeding tickets. Homeowners can check to see if prospective contractors have past or pending lawsuits alleging poor work. Many singles on the dating circuit even use the site to check for the names of prospective suitors. The “permanent record” we used to hear about in school exists after all.

Critics of the public’s right to know worry that criminals will be unfairly passed over for jobs if employers can easily view their rap sheets online.

But state law already protects against unfair hiring practices. Employers cannot discriminate against a convict if he or she is qualified for the job and if his or her past crimes are not substantially related to the job duties. The state plans to add more disclaimers on the site to warn employers not to misuse the information.

If, after all that, critics still want to see the Web site shut or watered down, they should remember one thing: There’s a simple way to keep your name off the Web site.

Don’t commit a crime.

Milfred is editorial page editor for the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison. Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to open records and open meetings.