SPJ letter to legislative leaders
SPJ Madison and SPJ Region 6 sent this letter today:
VIA ELECTRONIC MAIL
July 3, 2015
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos
Dear Sen. Fitzgerald and Rep. Vos:
James Madison, Father of the Bill of Rights, Federalist Papers author, and the man for whom our capital city is named, was perhaps the nation’s first public records advocate. He argued that citizens must gain access to information to be full participants in its government:
“A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Indeed. Perhaps this is why so many — conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, journalists and open government advocates, and others – have expressed outrage in the last 24 hours at the language inserted into the 2015-17 budget gutting our public records law.
The Madison professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists urges you and your chamber to please take heed of Founding Father Madison’s advice: Remove this language from the budget bill and arm the public with the knowledge that will help it be full partners in our democratic republic.
For decades, Wisconsin has had a proud tradition of open government, and the language inserted Thursday by the Joint Finance Committee through a 999 Motion would nearly eliminate any opportunity for the public to discover how its taxpayer-funded elected officials work.
Further, the language would wipe out nearly a century of drafting-file history. Founded in 1901, the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau has maintained records that help the public understand how and why legislation is drafted. These records provide a crucial historical purpose but are also a valuable contemporary resource for the public, scholars and journalists.
The press has a responsibility to serve as a watchdog on the work of government officials. We are the eyes and the ears of the public. As a result, public officials may have, at times, an uneasy relationship with us. Public officials may not always appreciate the work we do, or like the stories we write and produce. Under this proposal, you may avoid an unflattering news story now and again, but you will have done lasting damage to the democratic process in Wisconsin.
It is also disappointing that the Joint Finance Committee included this language in the 999 Motion on the final day of its work with little opportunity for public debate, and on the day before a long July 4th holiday weekend during which our country celebrates its freedom and independence – including the First Amendment. James Madison, lover of liberty and guardian against tyranny, would be appalled.
Mark Pitsch, president, SPJ Madison; Joe Radske, director, SPJ Region 6
Gov. Scott Walker
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca
Senator John Nygren
Senator Alberta Darling