Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council statement on today’s ruling in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel v. City of Milwaukee

FOIC press releases

For immediate release 
Contact: Bill Lueders, (608) 669-4712

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.

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