Does purpose of request matter in Wisconsin?

At Boots and Sabers, Owen writes about the West Bend School district’s recent denial of a records request.

In the school district’s letter denying the request, the district alludes to the motivations of the person who made the request as a reason to deny it:

“…in light of the prior questions you have asked, the questions posed here and your public records request directed at XXXXXX, the District questions what legitimate interest is being served by these inquiries.

A core value of those who advocate public access to governmental information is that it’s a bad, bad idea when government agencies assess the motivations of those who ask for records when determining whether or not to provide them. In most states, it is explicitly against the state sunshine laws to consider requester motivation.

The Wisconsin Open Records Law, however, is not clear on this point, partly because of Hempel v. City of Baraboo, a 2005 decision of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

In that case, a male police officer (Hal Hempel) sought documents from the Baraboo Police Department pertaining to an internal investigation it had conducted regarding complaints against Hempel from female police officers alleging a pattern of harrassment. Hempel was denied the documents by the police department and ultimately also by a circuit court and the state’s supreme court.

In its decision, the state supreme court said:

“In fact, requesters under the Open Records Law need not identify themselves, or state a purpose for their request. Wis. Stat. ยง 19.35(1)(i). When performing a balancing test, however, a records custodian almost inevitably must evaluate context to some degree.”

Is it just me, or does the second sentence of this opinion conflict with the first sentence?

Further reading:

West Bend School District denies open records request, a post from the person who made the request.

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2 responses to “Does purpose of request matter in Wisconsin?

  1. It doesn’t seem contradictory to me. A lot of state FOIA laws have special provisions for “persons of interests” by which the custodian has to reach some higher threshold to restrict disclosure of certain documents from such persons. This seems to just be another way of putting that provision.

    The idea is that you never have to identify yourself or your purpose, but sometimes doing so can strengthen your case.

  2. I think I understand that under some laws, there are provisions that if you identify yourself and possibly also your motivation, you can possibly gain access to documents that any old member of the public wouldn’t be given–for example, documents about yourself.

    But in Hempel v. City of Baraboo, the court referred to this part of the statute as a reason to deny records.

    In other words, it seems to me that they used the positive value of knowing about context, the requester and the reason for requesting to reach the stripped-bare conclusion that sometimes, context does matter, and then used the “sometimes, context does matter” reason to deny records.

    I don’t think the statute was intended that way.

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