MADISON (AP) — Government entities can’t charge the public for time spent deleting confidential information from records, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a major victory for open government advocates.
The decision settles a dispute between the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper and the Milwaukee Police Department. The newspaper sued the department after the agency charged it thousands of dollars to cover staff time spent redacting information from hundreds of reports the newspaper had requested.
Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn said in a statement released Wednesday, June 27th:
- “We will comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling. Clearly, the ruling has immediate consequences, as the costs of replying to the open records requests of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – including their requests within the last week for more than 61,000 reports, all of which require redaction under state law – will for now be borne by the taxpayers of the City of Milwaukee. We do note that the Supreme Court did not easily dismiss the City’s arguments, but indicated that the legislature’s oversight in not including redaction costs in the list of costs that can be charged to a requestor must be remedied by the legislature.”
Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Thomas R. Cooper sided with the city, authorizing it to charge the newspaper for all costs of complying with the requests, including time spent on redactions.
The Journal Sentinel asked the Supreme Court to take the case directly without a stop at the appeals court level and the high court agreed.
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote in Wednesday’s ruling that Wisconsin’s open records law allows record custodians to charge for reproducing, photographing, locating and shipping records.
The city contended redactions equate to reproducing and locating records, but Abrahamson wrote that deletions don’t fit into any of those categories.
“The statutory text does not allow the imposition of a broad array of fees for any and every cost incurred by an authority,” Abrahamson wrote. “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.”
A message left at the Milwaukee city attorney’s office wasn’t immediately returned.
Justice David Prosser wrote in a concurring opinion he fears the decision will lead to malicious and frivolous records requests for vast amounts of data. Justice Pat Roggensack sounded similar warnings in in her own concurrence, saying the decision will result in government bodies using taxpayer money to comply with voluminous requests and some requests will go unmet because government entities lack the staff to perform redactions.
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