October: Openness watchdog turns 30

2008 Columns

In October 1978, a group of 21 representatives of state print and broadcast media met at the offices of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. Their collective goal: To “have more clout, become more of a fist, serve a stronger warning [and] have a bigger impact” in defending rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.

The result was a new state organization called the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. The group, of which I am proud to be part, has survived and thrived.

The driving force behind the council’s formation was Bob Meloon, then executive editor of The Capital Times. He gave an impassioned speech at its inaugural meeting.

“The hard fact remains that the arteries of information about government and its legal workings are gradually closing. They are being closed by people who don’t believe in the open processes of our democratic society,” said Meloon, who died in 1996.

“They are being closed by an ever-more-complex technology which makes physical access to information more difficult. And they are being closed by changing attitudes among the general public, which does not have the fervent support for press freedom processes that we know to be vital.”

In its very first year, the council fought a flurry of closures of court proceedings. Our first president, Milwaukee Sentinel editor Bob Wills, noted that some Wisconsin defense attorneys viewed a recent U.S. Supreme Court case as an “invitation to seek closure” of what had always been public hearings, and some judges were going along.

The council responded by printing wallet-sized cards quoting the state statute which affirms that “every court shall be public and every citizen may freely attend the same,” except in extraordinary circumstances. These could be produced whenever a motion to close a proceeding was made. The cards asked for a delay so that arguments in favor of openness could be made. Usually this alone was enough to rebuff secrecy attempts.

This dynamic has played out countless times since. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council has served to remind those in power – sometimes cooperatively, sometimes not – of the state’s traditions of open government.

Importantly, Wisconsin’s openness laws extend to all citizens, not just the press. The Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and Wisconsin Associated Press are still among the council’s core sponsors. But over the years we’ve added academics, representatives of state watchdog groups, private investigators and citizen activists.

Enactment of the state’s public records law in 1981 and open meetings law in 1983, both with preambles asserting a strong presumption of openness, also changed the council’s focus. To some extent, our mission since then has been to defend these laws from legislative and judicial attack.

Shirley Abrahamson, chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, spoke in mid-October at an event celebrating the council’s 30th anniversary. (Listen here) She recited the preambles to both laws, which hold that access to information is an essential component of an informed electorate, one of the underpinnings of our democracy.

She spoke with pride of Wisconsin’s decision to allow cameras in the courtroom, noting that she herself has benefited from this policy: “I watched the Dahmer trial and saw my Milwaukee friends [in court], while in Singapore.”

Trusting citizens with information about the workings of government has served the state well.

“In Wisconsin, the trademark of the state is openness, transparency in government and records,” said Abrahamson. “Let the sun shine in. Sunshine is a good disinfectant.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Bill Lueders is the group’s president.