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Judge orders release of police porn proceedings to newspaper

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    News Media Update         WISCONSIN         Freedom of Information    

Judge orders release of police porn proceedings to newspaper

  • An intermediate state appellate court ordered the release of investigatory records chronicling jail officers’ on-duty viewing of Internet porn after rejecting the officers’ claim of several open records exceptions.

Oct. 14, 2004 — Investigatory records relating to Wisconsin jail officers viewing Internet pornography at work must be released to a local newspaper, the state Court of Appeals ruled last week.

Three jail officers in Rock County were fired and 10 disciplined after investigators found that they downloaded porn on county computers in August 2003. The officers subsequently filed grievances with their union, claiming that the discipline violated their collective bargaining agreement with the county.

As the union was investigating the grievance, The Janesville Gazette asked for the disciplinary records. Upon being notified as required by Wisconsin law that the government was about to disclose their disciplinary records, the jail officers sued the county seeking to block the records’ impending release.

A Wisconsin trial court ordered the records released to the paper and the jail officers appealed.

The officers first argued that their disciplinary records were exempt from disclosure because they were under investigation by the union as part of its grievance proceeding. Wisconsin law exempts government records from public disclosure when they relate to a current investigation.

Judge David G. Deininger, writing for a three-judge panel of Wisconsin’s intermediate appellate court, held that the statutory definition of investigation is one “conducted by the public authority itself as a prelude to possible employee disciplinary actions.” The court noted that a broader definition of investigation would impose unreasonable delays on the release of many government records.

The officers also cited “reputation and privacy concerns” in arguing against the disciplinary records’ release. In Wisconsin, an overriding public interest in keeping records confidential can justify non-disclosure even when there is no explicit statutory exception. But Judge Deininger found no such overriding public interest in the jail officers’ personal privacy. He ruled that there was, however, a “strong public interest in obtaining information regarding [the jail officers’] activities while on duty.”

(Local 2489 v. Rock County) RL

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