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Newspapers win right to school official’s disciplinary report

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Newspapers win right to school official's disciplinary report05/06/96 WISCONSIN--No exception exists under the state open records law to prevent disclosure…

Newspapers win right to school official’s disciplinary report

05/06/96

WISCONSIN–No exception exists under the state open records law to prevent disclosure of disciplinary or personnel records regarding a school district administrator, the state Supreme Court unanimously held in early April.

When considering whether to release such records, government entities should weigh the interest of the public to be informed against the harm likely to result to reputations as a result of public disclosure, the court stated.

In applying the balancing test, the court stated that “although release of disciplinary records might cause some reputational harm … we may nonetheless consider the public’s interest in information about misconduct by public officials to weigh more heavily in the balancing of interests.”

The court also noted that the disciplinary investigation was complete, which the court considered a factor weighing in favor of disclosure. “Now that the investigation has concluded, the public has a right to know its results,” the court stated.

Two newspapers submitted open records law requests in February and March 1994 to the Sheboygan Falls School District, seeking records relating to any disciplinary actions taken against the district’s administrator, Norman Frakes. The district released the minutes of several closed school board meetings, but refused to release any other documents, arguing that they were privileged as personnel information.

The Sheboygan County Circuit Court dismissed the newspapers’ subsequent suit against the district, finding an exception to the open records law for public employee disciplinary records.

The Supreme Court found that the first document, a letter from the district’s attorney to the School Board, could not be released because it was covered by the attorney-client privilege.

After applying the balancing test, the court ordered the district to release the second record, a letter from the district to Frakes that informed him of disciplinary sanctions that would be imposed on him. (Wisconsin Newspress, Inc., et al. v. School District of Sheboygan Falls, et al.; Media Counsel: Robert J. Dreps, Madison)