The Wisconsin Supreme Court last week delivered a major victory to advocates of open government, which means the vast majority of us.
The only ones not to benefit from the court's ruling are public agencies that seek to erect roadblocks in the path of the public's right to unfettered access to public records.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel filed a lawsuit against the Milwaukee Police Department in 2010 after the department said it would charge more than $4,500 for reports the newspaper sought about a number of offenses. In addition, police said it would take more than nine months to comply with the request because it had to redact information from many of the reports.
The department, according to the newspaper, "was not flat-out denying access to the records, (but) the cost and length of time to get them essentially served the same purpose."
The state Supreme Court ruled, point blank and unanimously, that government entities can't charge the public for time spent deleting confidential information from records. Period.
Milwaukee police are not unique in attempts to stonewall or excessively delay records requests through charging exorbitant fees. Most of the requests are from the media, but citizens also have been thwarted in such efforts. Public records are just that -- public -- not something to dangle on a string and quickly pull away when it is just within reach. Nor are public records to be considered just another revenue stream for government agencies.
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson realized this when she said in the ruling: "The statutory text does not allow the imposition of a broad array of fees for any and every cost incurred by an authority. If the legislature had wanted to allow an authority to impose fees for a broad range of tasks, or if it had wanted to include the task of redaction as a task for which fees may be imposed, it would have said so."
In other words, the public records law is clear in prohibiting governments from imposing extraneous charges for access to public records.
We are not blind to the dangers implicit in the ruling. Justice David Prosser fears the decision will lead to malicious and frivolous records requests for vast amounts of data, and other justices say government might be too short-staffed to meet such requests.
Both are legitimate concerns. The right of the public to know and to have access to the workings of government far outweigh them, however. The Supreme Court knows that, and ruled correctly in favor of the broader right to transparency and open government.