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SPJ supports Wisconsin newspapers’ appeal for access to public information
For Immediate Release:
Dave Aeikens, SPJ President, (320) 255-8744,
Scott Leadingham, SPJ Communications Coordinator, (317) 927-8000 ext. 211, firstname.lastname@example.org
INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists has joined an amicus brief written by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press supporting two Wisconsin newspapers in their attempts to report information about infractions by public employees.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Lakeland Times sought the names of public employees who had lost the privilege to drive state-owned vehicles due to traffic violations. Because of bargaining agreements between public employee unions and the state of Wisconsin, the newspapers were denied the employees’ names. The agreements stipulate the state will not release the names of union members to other labor organizations or the press. Such information was previously available under the Wisconsin Open Records Law.
The brief was filed last week in the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
“Open records laws exist for a reason, namely to ensure citizens have access to information about government and where their tax dollars are going,” SPJ President Dave Aeikens said. “Changing such laws through bargaining agreements goes against the spirit of the First Amendment. The unions want to protect their employees, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of the public’s right to know.”
The chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee, Dave Cuillier, reflected a similar sentiment.
“This is a bad case of secrecy by contract,” said Cuillier, “If the appeal doesn’t favor the newspapers then we might as well get used to a secret government, because any information could be kept in the dark if it’s written into a contract. There’s hope, though. Across the country we’ve seen courts strike down such attempts at keeping important records hidden.”
By joining the amicus brief, SPJ agrees with the assertion that such a denial of information infringes upon the public’s right to know. The brief further argues that the unions’ bargaining agreements attempt to supplant a legislatively enacted state law. The brief also argues that the stipulation to deny information to certain parties, including the press, is unconstitutionally restrictive.
Two state agencies, the Department of Administration and Department of Natural Resources, are included in the case. The unions with bargaining agreements with the state that are singled out in the brief are the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 24; Wisconsin State Employees Union; Wisconsin Science Professionals, American Federation of Teachers Local 3272; and Wisconsin Professional Employees Council, Local 4848.
In addition to RCFP and SPJ, a number of other journalism organizations are supporting the newspapers, including The Associated Press, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well- informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.