There was a time when there was wide consensus that records compiled by the government are the property of the people.
The premise of the American democratic experiment, after all, is that government belongs not to the politicians, but to the people who elect them and send them to office to represent their interests — a government of, by and for the people, if you will.
The Founding Fathers placed a huge burden on American citizens. It would work, Thomas Jefferson frequently pointed out, if the people kept themselves informed so they could make wise decisions at election times and whenever else their voices needed to be heard.
That philosophy was the basis of the First Amendment's free press protections. A free press that could shine light on what the people's government was up to was essential to the public being informed.
But the people can't stay informed if the politicians who represent them cloak themselves in secrecy. That's why in the years since the nation's founding, open records and meetings laws have been adopted in every state. Those openness laws have largely been upheld by the courts, which have often cited the First Amendment's free press guarantees to turn back government attempts to keep records secret.
Recently, however, there's been an alarming trend to make it more difficult for people to get access to their own government. More and more of our elected officials are acting as though what they do and say is no one's business but their own. And even governmental records, already compiled and paid for with the people's money, are being kept from citizens curious about the workings of their government.
Some officials have become creative. They don't deny a citizen's or a journalist's request for copies of records, they simply put a price tag for "reproducing" or "finding" them so high that the requester can't afford the price. The practice has been called out and the state attorney general has issued opinions slamming the practice, but nevertheless it persists.
But others have been more overt. The most egregious recent attack on openness, which would virtually have exempted the Legislature from the laws, was sneaked into the state budget two years ago. Only after a huge outcry from thousands in the state did Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and his cohort pull back their clumsy attempt at denying the people access to their government.
The technology revolution has opened doors to even more creative ways to deny the people access to their governments. Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council president Bill Lueders, for instance, caught Republican Vos' office deleting emails that would have explained Vos' role in crafting a highly controversial bill to limit free speech on university campuses.
Other politicians have taken a more direct route, proposing legislation that would make it more difficult to access information compiled by new technology. Just last week the state Assembly passed a bill, now pending in the Senate, that would exempt video from police body cameras from the open records law. Use of body cams is intended to shed light on police interactions with the public, helping people understand how their law enforcement works — or doesn't work.
The public, of course, pays for the information gathered by the cameras, yet in only a few instances will they be able to gain access to it, and then only if police can get permission from people in the video, a formidable impediment. Worse, much of the video can be destroyed after 120 days.
Interestingly, Vos, who is often in the middle of openness controversies, and state Rep. Jesse Kremer, the author of the body cam bill, along with state Rep. John Nygren, co-chair of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee, are being sued by the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now for refusing the group access to their Twitter feeds.
It's the GOP politicians' way of limiting access to what otherwise is their public communications. They don't like One Wisconsin Now's habit of arguing with their views, so thanks to social media technology they can just refuse to give the group access.
"Everyone, regardless of their political ideology, should be able to respond to public officials on social media sites just as they would if they were attending a town hall meeting," argues Scot Ross, the executive director of OWN.
That would be in the spirit of giving the people access to their governments. Instead, the "public servants" who work for us are cleverly finding new ways to keep the people in the dark.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DaveZweifel
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