Wisconsin Court Broadens FOI Exception, Allowing Government Agencies To Deny Requests Based On Perceived Motive
from the as-if-government-agencies-need-any-more-excuses dept
An interesting -- and possibly harmful -- ruling on public records requests has just been issued by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. Although the ruling has a very limited jurisdiction, it could be used to push for similar legal activity elsewhere. Journalism student David Schick (who was last seen drawing the ire of Georgia State Attorney General Sam Olens over the release of public documents) has the story.
In a ruling earlier this month, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals set a precedent of allowing state officials to consider the purpose of a citizens’ public records request before handing over documents…How did Korry Ardell get himself excluded from the "general class of persons?" By being generally abusive and violent, it would appear. The person whose records he was seeking had previously obtained a restraining order against Ardell -- something he had violated in the past, leading to a six-month visit to a local correctional facility.
According the the appeal, “[Korry] Ardell has not aligned himself with the general class of persons (emphasis added)” that make records requests to ensure government transparency.
The decision groups Ardell with others who are denied access to public records -- namely, prisoners. But Ardell's time had been served and he was no longer incarcerated when the request was made. Ardell's previous willingness to violate court orders does seem to give him a higher-than-normal chance for recidivism, something the court also took into account when rendering this decision.
Milwaukee city attorney Melanie Rutledge feels this is just a reaffirmation of current restrictions on FOI requests. Unfortunately, the court goes even further than simply aligning Ardell with those currently being incarcerated by suggesting that past criminal activities may be able to exclude persons from filing FOI requests, even if time has been served.
Ardell disagrees with this conclusion and argues that Levin v. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, 2003 WI App 181, 266 Wis. 2d 481, 668 N.W.2d 779, stands for the proposition that identity is never a proper consideration when determining whether information should be released under the Wisconsin open records law. Citing WIS. STAT. § 19.32(3), Ardell asserts that the only exception to this hard-and-fast rule is for committed and incarcerated persons.While the decision does appear to make sense in this situation, it opens up the possibility of future request denials based on the requester's personal background, or the responding agency's perception of the requester's motive. ("Mosaic theory," anyone?) The court states that this will be determined on a "case-by-case basis," but that's a potentially expensive remedy that not every requester will be able to avail themselves of. This has the potential to route more requests through the Wisconsin court system, aligning this state with the US government itself, which seems to prefer legal battles to transparency.
Indeed, Levin stands for the general proposition “that the identity and purpose of the requester of public records is not a part of the balancing test to be applied in determining whether to release records.” Id., 266 Wis. 2d 481, ¶14. However, as we set forth above, the determination of whether there is a safety concern that outweighs the presumption of disclosure is a fact-intensive inquiry that we determine on a case-by-case basis…
Ardell’s violent history with the MBSD employee, including his two convictions for violations of the domestic abuse injunction, align him more closely with the class of persons statutorily denied access to public records for safety reasons, that is, committed and incarcerated persons. See WIS. STAT. § 19.32(3). Ardell has forfeited his right to disclosure of the MBSD employee’s employment records by demonstrating an intent to hurt the employee, and it would be contrary to common sense and public policy to permit him to use the open records law to continue his course of intimidation and harassment.