Flouting the First Amendment and Wisconsin’s open government law has a way of quickly backfiring on public officials.
Lafayette County just demonstrated this in spectacular fashion.
County officials were understandably upset when a study of water wells in Lafayette and two neighboring counties was misrepresented in an August news report in Milwaukee. The article suggested 91% of private wells tested in southwestern Wisconsin were polluted with animal or human fecal matter. The Associated Press distributed the story, and the State Journal and other news outlets published it.
It was alarming and raised concerns about groundwater pollution from farms and septic systems.
What the initial article failed to explain was that all of the wells with tainted water had already been flagged for contamination. They were a subset of a previous study. So the problem, while serious, wasn’t nearly as widespread as the first report suggested. Among all of the wells in the three-county area that had been tested, about one-third — not 91% — raised health concerns.
Public records experts have said the restrictions were likely unconstitutional.
The mistake has been corrected, including in the State Journal. Professional journalists fix errors when they learn they have reported something wrong.
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But that wasn’t good enough for an unnamed Lafayette County official (or officials), who unleashed a wildly absurd resolution seeking to restrict the press and gag county supervisors. The resolution claimed the county had been “falsely slandered” because of “a county board leak of confidential information.”
“Under no circumstances is the media allowed to glean information and selectively report it in order to interpret the results for their own means,” the resolution declared. “Violators will be prosecuted.”
Journalists would be limited to reporting Lafayette County press releases verbatim, as approved by a select group of county leaders, according to the resolution. The rigid measure also threatened county board supervisors with “censure” and “further action” if they spoke to a reporter without “express authority.”
The resolution was so extreme and patently unconstitutional that open government advocates wondered if it was real. Unfortunately, it was.
The proposal had no chance of surviving in court. The First Amendment protects a free press so journalists can provide information to citizens independently from government. The First Amendment also applies to elected officials. Lafayette County Board members can speak their minds on matters of public concern — not the least of which is whether water is safe to drink.
Moreover, Wisconsin’s open records law presumes that all government documents are open to public inspection, with few exceptions. That’s because the public is the boss. And access to information helps voters hold elected officials accountable.
The Lafayette County Board wisely tabled the ridiculous resolution Tuesday. Most supervisors sided with transparency. Yet Jack Sauer, the board’s chairman, still won’t say who sponsored the resolution. He hasn’t learned that secrecy only breeds suspicion.
We urge his colleagues to embrace more openness following this debacle. Allowing unfettered access to county information about water quality and other critical issues is the best way to build public trust.