Officials in southwestern Wisconsin have dropped a resolution warning journalists they would face prosecution if they didn’t print an upcoming news release in its entirety.
The Lafayette County Land Conservation Committee was set to vote on the resolution at an emergency meeting Tuesday, with the full County Board to take it up that evening. But the county’s attorney, Nathan Russell, said Monday that the meeting won’t happen and he doesn’t believe the resolution will come before any county committee “in the near future.”
The canceled resolution focused on the upcoming release of findings from the Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology Study, or SWIGG, a joint county, state and federal effort to identify and understand the causes of well contamination in Iowa, Lafayette and Grant counties.
The resolution called for the county chairs, county conservationists and the Lafayette County conservation committee chairman to craft a news release on the findings. Journalists who alter or edit the release would be prosecuted, according to the resolution, whose author was not made clear last week.
“Under no circumstances is the media allowed to glean information and selectively report it in order to interpret the results for their own means. Violators will be prosecuted,” read part of the canceled resolution, which cited no grounds in criminal law under which a person could be prosecuted for exercising his or her First Amendment right.
It also said that “any board member caught distorting information intentionally, or speaking to the press without the express authority to represent their Committee, Full County Board or the Review Board, will be censured by their respective board and publicly admonished.”
Media law experts say the resolution was clearly unconstitutional.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, on Friday called it “wildly improper for public officials to dictate what media can and cannot do with publicly released information or to threaten other public officials who want to express a divergent view.”
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Put up on Facebook
Committee and County Board member Kriss Marion said on Friday that she posted the resolution on her Facebook page because it’s a public document but it hadn’t been posted on the county’s website.
She said then that she was “taken aback by the body of the resolution that apparently seeks to place a gag order on the discussion of publicly available scientific results,” and urged residents to call members of the committee and County Board chairman Jack Sauer.
The resolution opened by saying the protocols it outlines “must” be followed because “in the past, Southwest Wisconsin has been falsely slandered by the press due to a county board leak of confidential information of the collaborative three county water study.”
It does not get more specific about what information was leaked, by whom or to what media, or what reporting constituted “slander.”
Results for bacteria
Testing last year found 42% of 301 randomly selected wells in Lafayette, Grant and Iowa counties exceeded federal health standards for bacteria that can come from animal or human waste, or for a toxic fertilizer residue.
Samples collected in mid-April from 35 private wells that had previously shown contamination found 32 of them were contaminated from feces.
Russell said the counties can protect the study’s “integrity” without a resolution.