The Development of Public Access Law in Wisconsin
The very first Wisconsin statutes adopted after the organization of Wisconsin as a state provided for public access to the meetings and records of county government. Wis. Rev. Stat. Ch. 10, §§ 29, 37,137 (1849). From that early starting point, the Wisconsin tradition of full public access to the affairs of government has grown steadily.
The original statute requiring county constitutional officers to have their records open for examination has survived virtually unchanged. Compare Wis. Rev. Stat. Ch. 10, § 137 (1849) with Wis. Stat. § 59.20(3) (2003-04). The policy of public access to records was extended to all state, county, city, town, village, school district and other municipality or district records by Wis. Laws Ch. 178 (1917). The Wisconsin Supreme Court interpreted this enactment as a codification of the common law. International Union, UAW v. Gooding, 251 Wis. 362, 372-73, 29 N.W.2d 730, 735-36 (1947). At the same time, however, the court questioned the "mere curiosity" restriction on common law access, and that doctrine has never become part of the Wisconsin common law of public records. The 1917 law remained essentially unchanged until 1981, when the legislature adopted the present Open Records Law. Wis. Laws Ch. 135 (1981). This enactment expressly preserved "[s]ubstantive common law principles construing the right to inspect, copy or receive copies of records." Wis. Stat. § 19.35 (1)(a) (2003-04).
Until 1959, a hodgepodge of statutes relating to various branches of government granted public access to some meetings. For example, in addition to the original 1849 statute protecting access to county meetings, an 1889 law required open meetings for other municipalities. Wis. Laws Ch. 326 (1889). This law became the foundation for the present comprehensive requirement of open meetings in 1959. Wis. Laws Ch. 289 (1959). The legislature substantially revised the 1959 act in 1973, Wis. Laws Ch. 297 (1973), and made minor revisions in 1975, Wis. Laws Ch. 426 (1975). As subsequently construed, the 1975 amendments served to broaden the scope of the law. State ex rel. Newspapers Inc. v. Showers, 135 Wis. 2d 77, 97, 398 N.W.2d 154, 163 (1987).
In adopting the respective Open Meetings and Open Records laws, the legislature forcefully declared the state's general policies concerning openness in government. Section 19.31 of the Wisconsin Statutes (2003-04) provides:
In recognition of the fact that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the public policy of this state that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them. Further, providing persons with such 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. To that end, §§ 19.32 to 19.37 shall be construed in every instance with a presumption of complete public access, consistent with the conduct of governmental business. The denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, and only in an exceptional case may access be denied.
Section 19.81(1) of the Wisconsin Statutes (2003-04) provides:
In recognition of the fact that a representative government of the American type is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the policy of this state that the public is entitled to the fullest and most complete information regarding the affairs of government as is compatible with the conduct of governmental business.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court recently noted the state’s long tradition of open government: “If Wisconsin were not known as the Dairy State it could be known, and rightfully so, as the Sunshine State. All branches of Wisconsin government have, over many years, kept a strong commitment to transparent government.” Schill v. Wisconsin Rapids School Dist., 2010 WI 86, ¶ 1, 327 Wis. 2d 572, 786 N.W.2d 177.