Statement on video redactions bill SB 789

FOIC press releases

Dear Council members and supporters,

Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders is calling on Gov. Tony Evers to veto a bill that has overwhelmingly passed both houses of the state legislature. The bill, SB 789, would make those who request video footage from law enforcement and corrections agencies pay for the cost of redacting – that is, blurring out certain information.

An amendment to the bill introduced on Feb. 12 and approved on Feb. 15 exempts individuals “directly involved in the event to which the requested records relate,” and waives the fee for requesters who make fewer than ten requests per calendar year and who stipulate in writing that they “will not use the audio or video content for financial gain,” excluding as part of a civil action. Penalty for violation is a $10,000 fine.

The search number limit is troubling because it would effectively end the ability of some media outlets to investigate police practices outside of isolated individual cases. The amendment wording is imprecise: Does a request for, say, three videos, count as one request or three? It is also not clear whether a request for a video that has already been redacted would count toward the total, or what happens if multiple requesters seek the same video at the same time.

And the language about “financial gain” that requesters must attest to in writing could potentially be invoked against news outlets that are still managing to make money. The bill does not state who decides whether a particular use constitutes forbidden financial gain or on what basis it would be decided. Either way, the provision disregards one of the fundamental principles of the state’s Open Records Law – that it should not matter who is seeking a given record or why.

This bill, if signed into law, would undermine the goal of transparency that access to these records was intended to provide. Police agencies across Wisconsin have spent millions of tax dollars to equip officers with cameras. We should not now make it more difficult for media outlets to obtain the video records that are being created as a result (See Your Right to Know column, “Don’t Charge Records Requesters for Redactions.”) And we should not open the door to letting video custodians charge requesters for the time it takes to redact information, which the keepers of other kinds of records will surely want to get in on.

While the cost of video redaction is a valid concern, changing the law to put the burden on requesters is not a proper solution. There are other ways to achieve the same end, including adding centralized resources to help agencies perform required redactions and reducing the number of things that need to be redacted.

Gov. Evers should veto this bill so that the Legislature can restart the process of finding solutions to this problem – solutions that protect the public’s ability to obtain these records, for which it is already paying.

Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council