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SPJ praises Supreme Court ruling on open records fees

The Madison pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists applauds the unanimous Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling today rejecting the imposition of fees for redacting information in public records.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had appealed a lower court ruling that said the City of Milwaukee could charge the newspaper for the time it took employees to review and black out information contained in public records. The Supreme Court ruled such fees are not allowed under Wisconsin law.

“This decision is a tremendous victory for the public. Anything less would have had a chilling effect on government transparency,” said Mark Pitsch, president of Madison’s SPJ chapter. “Government officials should be on notice: Charging requestors for reviewing and redacting information in public records is against the law.”

Pitsch urged governmental bodies across the state to immediately inform employees of the ruling and to advise them of its impact. Requestors across the state should cite the decision in all public records requests, he said.

More information about the state’s Public Records law can be found at the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council website, www.wisfoic.org, or from the Wisconsin Department of Justice, www.doj.state.wi.us.

Writing for the Supreme Court majority, Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson said charging fees for reviewing and redacting does “not fit within the fees set forth” in state law.

“We decline to expand the range of tasks for which fees may be imposed,” Abrahamson wrote. “To do so would be in direct contravention of the text of the Law and our legislatively imposed duty to construe the Public Records Law ‘with a presumption of complete public access.’”

Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen praised the ruling, calling it a “straightforward and commonsense interpretation of the Public Records Law” that “promotes open government.”

Justices Patience Roggensack, David Prosser, Annette Ziegler and Michael Gableman agreed with the Court’s conclusion but warned that it could lead to higher costs to taxpayers. They urged the Legislature to re-examine the law.

The Madison pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists concludes no changes to this portion of the Public Records Law is necessary. Allowing governmental bodies to charge excessive fees to provide public records would curtail access to those records and limit government transparency.

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