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Bill limits court-imposed privacy exceptions to open records act

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    NMU         WISCONSIN         Freedom of Information    

Bill limits court-imposed privacy exceptions to open records act

  • The Wisconsin legislature passed a measure to ease privacy requirements created by the state’s supreme court that curb disclosure under the state’s open records act.

June 25, 2003 — A bill designed to restore the openness mandate of Wisconsin’s open records law and reduce confusion over what records about individuals can be released won the full legislature’s approval Tuesday.

The legislation is a long-awaited reaction to two Wisconsin Supreme Court decisions that required record keepers to notify employees if they planned to release records that would harm privacy or reputation, but gave no guidance about determining when privacy or reputation are at risk.

The decisions resulted in delays and denials of once public records and in numerous attempts to change the law. In Woznicki v. Erickson, decided in 1996, the state’s high court required notice to precede the release of information about an individual. Legislators have been trying to address the effects of that decision for many years.

“We had all this confusion and record holders tended to err on the side of withholding information,” Sandra George, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, said. “It’s wonderful to have just a very narrow category of items that require a Woznicki notice.”

The bill awaiting Gov. Jim Doyle’s signature requires notification to public employees when records involving disciplinary matters are about to be released or obtained by a search warrant. It also requires notification when the records involve a private sector employee. The disclosure of any other records concerning employees would be determined by balancing the public interest in the record with several factors, including the employee’s privacy interest.

The bill contains an exemption to access for ongoing disciplinary investigations and job evaluations of rank-and-file, but not high-level, employees. For example, a school superintendent’s job evaluation would be public information while a school teacher’s evaluation would be exempt.

The bill also closes access to public and private employees’ Social Security numbers and home contact information, including addresses, e-mail addresses and telephone numbers.

Wisconsin’s open records law does not specifically exempt personnel records, but the Woznicki holding said a district attorney could not release details on an individual without first consulting with the individual. In 1999, the state supreme court expanded Woznicki, saying employees had rights to object to release of records about them. The decision in Milwaukee Teacher’s Education Association v. Milwaukee Board of School Directors prohibited the board from complying with a newspaper’s request for the criminal records of school teachers and other employees.

(A.B. 196) KH

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