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Committee convenes to clarify court-ordered privacy

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WISCONSIN         Freedom of Information         Sep 30, 2002    

Committee convenes to clarify court-ordered privacy

  • A special committee met Sept. 23 to better define the circumstances under which government employee records should be made public and when privacy interests should prevail.

A special committee met Sept. 23 to discuss how Wisconsin’s open records law should apply to personnel records in light of two controversial state Supreme Court decisions which have inhibited the public’s ability to view documents if they contain information about individuals.

The Study Committee on Open Records Law, made up of legislators, lawyers, media representatives and public officials, met Sept. 23 to discuss clarifying the law as it pertains to personnel records.

The state’s open records law does not specifically exempt personnel records, but in 1996 the state Supreme Court ruled in Woznicki v Erickson that a district attorney could not release details on an individual without first consulting with the individual. In 1999, the Supreme Court expanded its ruling, saying employees had rights to object to release of records about them. That case, Milwaukee Teacher’s Education Association v. Milwaukee Board of School Directors, involved a request for the criminal history records of school teachers.

The decisions have resulted in delays and denials of once public records and in several attempts to change the law.

“Timeliness of a record’s release is as important as the record itself,” said Rep. Mark Gundrum (R-New Berlin), co-chairman of the committee.

But timeliness was not the only issue addressed by the study committee. Members also discussed the privacy rights of government employees.

Historically, the test for record providers was whether the public benefit of releasing records was greater than the public benefit of not releasing records.

But that test has changed, Gundrum said, to whether “the public benefit of releasing records is greater than the privacy of the individual whose records are being released.”

The committee must “narrow the scope of recommendations” so it can submit legislative proposals that will fix the “cumbersome procedure required after records have been requested,” said John Laabs, president of Wisconsin’s Broadcasters Association.

Other proposals put forth at the committee’s initial meeting include whether requesters of records must identify themselves and whether private employees who work with state agencies are subject to the same open records law regarding personnel records.

The committee will meet again Oct. 28 to debate issues raised in the Sept. 23 meeting.

Gundrum hopes the committee will agree on recommendations to make at the state Legislature’s next session, which begins in January.

LF


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